Residents and rescue workers in Florida and other southeastern U.S. states were in the midst of recovering Friday from the devastation inflicted by Hurricane Michael, the remnants of which have moved out into the Atlantic Ocean.
Before it swept out to sea, Michael claimed at least 11 lives after making landfall Wednesday as a Category 4 Hurricane in the Florida Panhandle and churned north through Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia as a tropical storm.
Emergency personnel scoured through areas where entire blocks of homes and buildings were flattened, searching for survivors.
“I expect the fatality count to come up today,” Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long said Friday on CNN. “Hopefully it doesn’t rise dramatically, but it is a possibility.”
Officials in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, which is still reeling from the recent onslaught of Hurricane Florence, said previously Michael had killed at least six people. But the death toll reached 11 when the Virginia Department of Emergency Management said Friday morning that five people were killed in the state, including four who drowned and a firefighter who was responding to a call for help.
The storm, which has been downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone, was the strongest on record to hit the Florida Panhandle and the third most powerful to strike the U.S. mainland.
Large areas of the coast of the Panhandle, including Mexico Beach and Panama City, were left in ruins. The area is home to a number of rural communities that are among the poorest in the state.
In Mexico Beach, a seafront town where Michael made landfall, entire blocks of houses were razed, boats hurled into yards and the streets cluttered with downed power lines and trees.
Florida Governor Rick Scott said Michael caused “unbelievable devastation” and assured evacuees and other residents Friday a strong relief effort from his administration is underway.
Scott wrote on Twitter, “We are working as quickly as possible so that you can return, check on your things and begin the recovery process.” Scott added, “Right now, the top priority is making sure that things are safe.”
The U.S. Army said more than 2,000 Florida National Guard soldiers were helping with recovery efforts. Officials said more than 400,000 homes and businesses were without electricity and 20,000 utility workers had been deployed to restore power.
Utility companies said more than 1 million homes and businesses were without power from Florida to Virginia early Friday.
The American Red Cross said the number of evacuees in shelters was expected to increase to 20,000 across five states by Friday.
Michael made landfall in the Florida Panhandle with maximum sustained winds of 249 kilometers per hour, putting it just below the Category 5 status that tops the scale used to describe the strength and destructive potential of hurricanes.
The Atlantic hurricane season began in June and ends November 30.