Searchers find body in hurricane-stricken town, officials say

As death toll rises to 17, search-and-rescue teams also find survivors

By Terrell Forney - Reporter, Russ Bynum, Brendan Farrington, Andrea Torres - Digital Reporter/Producer

MEXICO BEACH, Fla. - Search-and-rescue teams found at least one body in Mexico Beach, the ground-zero town nearly obliterated by Hurricane Michael, an official said Friday as the scale of the storm’s fury became ever clearer.

The death toll across the South stood at 13, not counting any victims in Mexico Beach.

Miami Fire Chief Joseph Zahralban, leader of a search-and-rescue unit that went into the flattened town, said: “We have one confirmed deceased and are working to determine if there are others.” Zahralban said searchers were trying to determine if that person had been alone or was part of a family.

Kristi Stokes, Casey Whatler and Kevin Guaranta (L-R) look for a friends mother in the demolished remains of the home that she was possibly in as Hurricane Michael passed through the area on October 12, 2018 in Mexico Beach, Fla. (Photo by…

Zahralban spoke as his team — which included a dog — was winding down its two-day search of Mexico Beach, the town of about 1,000 people that was nearly wiped off the map when Michael blew ashore there on Wednesday with devastating 155 mph winds.

Blocks and blocks of homes were demolished, reduced to piles of splintered lumber or mere concrete slabs, by the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in nearly 50 years.

As the catastrophic damage across the Florida Panhandle came into view 48 hours after the hurricane struck, there was little doubt the death toll would rise.

Getty Images

Kathy Coy on Thursday stands among what is left of her home, after Hurricane Michael destroyed it. She said she was in the Panama City home when it was blown apart -- and she is thankful to be alive (Joe Raedle/Getty Images).

How high it might go was unclear. But authorities scrapped plans to set up a temporary morgue, suggesting they had yet to see mass casualties.

State officials said that by one count, 285 people in Mexico Beach defied mandatory evacuation orders and stayed behind. Whether any of them got out at some point was unclear.

Emergency officials said they have received thousands of calls asking about missing people. But with cellphone service out across vast swaths of the Florida Panhandle, officials said it is possible that some of those unaccounted for are safe and just haven’t been able to contact friends or family to let them know.

Across the ravaged region, meanwhile, authorities set up distribution centers to hand out food and water to victims. Some supplies were brought in by trucks, while others had to be delivered by helicopter because roads had yet to be cleared of debris.

Kevin Guaranta carries an American flag he found as he walks on the foundations of what were homes that were demolished as hurricane Michael passed through the area on October 12, 2018 in Mexico Beach, Florida. The hurricane hit the panhandle…

Residents began to come to grips with the destruction and face up to the uncertainty that lies ahead.

“I didn’t recognize nothing. Everything’s gone. I didn’t even know our road was our road,” said 25-year-old Tiffany Marie Plushnik, an evacuee who returned to find her home in Sandy Creek too damaged to live in.

When she went back to the hotel where she took shelter from the storm, she found out she could no longer stay there either because of mold.

“We’ve got to figure something out. We’re starting from scratch, all of us,” Plushnik said.

President Trump announced plans to visit Florida and hard-hit Georgia early next but didn’t say what day he would arrive.

“We are with you!” he tweeted.

Hector Morales sits on a pile of rubble after hurricane Michael passed through the area on October 12, 2018 in Mexico Beach, Florida. The hurricane hit the panhandle area with category 4 winds causing major damage. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Shell-shocked survivors who barely escaped with their lives told of terrifying winds, surging floodwaters and homes cracking like eggs.

Emergency officials said they had done an initial “hasty search” of 80 percent of the stricken area, looking for the living or the dead.

Gov. Rick Scott said state officials still “do not know enough” about the fate of those who stayed behind in the region.

“We are not completely done. We are still getting down there,” the governor added.

Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long said he expects to see the death toll rise.

“We still haven’t gotten into the hardest-hit areas,” he said, adding with frustration: “Very few people live to tell what it’s like to experience storm surge, and unfortunately in this country we seem to not learn the lesson.”

Tiffany Cox tries to help a friend salvage what she can from what is left of her friend's business after it was destroyed by Hurricane Michael on October 12, 2018 in Mexico Beach, Florida. The hurricane hit the panhandle area with category 4…

Long expressed worry that people have suffered “hurricane amnesia.”

“When state and local officials tell you to get out, dang it, do it. Get out,” he said.

On the Panhandle, Tyndall Air Force Base “took a beating,” so much so that Col. Brian Laidlaw told the 3,600 men and women stationed on the base not to come back. Many of the 600 families who live there had followed orders to pack what they could in a single suitcase as they were evacuated ahead of the storm.

The hurricane’s eyewall passed directly overhead, severely damaging nearly every building and leaving many a complete loss. The elementary school, the flight line, the marina and the runways were devastated.

“I will not recall you and your families until we can guarantee your safety. At this time I can’t tell you how long that will take, but I’m on it,” Laidlaw wrote. “We need to restore basic utilities, clear our roads of trees and power lines, and assess the structural integrity of our buildings.”

Contributors in Florida include Associated Press writers Jay Reeves in Panama City, Brendan Farrington in St. Marks, Gary Fineout in Tallahassee, Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg, Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, and Jennifer Kay and Freida Frisaro in Miami. Others include Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, North Carolina, Darlene Superville in Washington, and Seth Borenstein in Kensington, Maryland.

Copyright 2018 by WPLG Local10.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.