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October 14, 2018

Hurricane Michael death toll hits 17, officials say it could rise


Sun, Oct 14, 2018

PANAMA CITY, United States: Three days after Hurricane Michael´s devastating strike, search teams in Florida pressed their hunt for victims into hard-to-reach areas Saturday, as the death toll rose to 17 and officials scrambled to deliver aid to those who lost everything.

The mammoth storm, which made landfall as a Category 4 storm on Wednesday, claimed lives in four states, but Florida suffered the worst damage by far.

Large parts of the state´s panhandle were pulverized by the strong winds and rain, and eight storm-related deaths have been reported in Florida so far.

"Mexico Beach is devastated," Governor Rick Scott said of the town hardest hit by the hurricane, the most powerful to hit the United States in decades.

"It´s like a war zone," he said while touring the town of 1,000 people on the Gulf of Mexico.

Rescue teams with sniffer dogs were searching for possible victims buried under the rubble in the debris-strewn community.

US media have reported one death in the town -- the body of an elderly man was found hundreds of yards (meters) from his home.

Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), warned that the death toll could yet rise.

"I hope we don´t see it climb dramatically. But I have reasons to believe we still haven´t got into some of the hardest-hit areas," he said.

Government and private relief centers were opening up to provide badly needed food, water and other aid to people whose lives were upended by the monster storm.

As somber residents began making it back to homes still intact, officials said it could take 10 days to compile a final damage estimate.

In Mexico Beach, dozens of structures -- homes, shops and restaurants -- were lifted off their foundations by storm surge and winds of 155 miles per hour (250 kph).

Some were moved hundreds of feet inland while others were simply smashed to bits.

"Very few people live to tell what it´s like to experience storm surge," Long said. "Storm surge causes the most amount of loss of life."

Building codes on Florida´s Panhandle, in the state´s northwest, are less rigorous than in the state´s south, where severe hurricanes hit more frequently.

The devastation wrought by Michael has sparked debate on whether an era of warming oceans and more severe storms might require tougher building standards in coastal areas.

Underlining the unpredictability of modern storms, a category one hurricane dubbed Leslie was heading Saturday on a highly unusual path toward the Iberian peninsula.

Across the storm-hit US region, relief efforts were shaping up.

In Panama City, Florida, the Salvation Army and other charitable groups opened distribution points for food and supplies. A few stores were reopening, and cars lined up at the few open gas stations.

Beyond Florida, five storm-related deaths were reported in Virginia -- including that of a fireman whose firetruck was struck by a semitrailer truck. One died in Georgia and three more were killed in North Carolina.

Hundreds of thousands of people remain without electricity in Florida, Georgia and Virginia, and officials say that, even with line crews arriving from across the country, it could be weeks before power is fully restored.

Meanwhile, a wide swath of Florida´s northwest coast has been without telephone or Internet service, adding to the daunting challenges facing residents, loved ones trying to reach them, and the work crews struggling to bring them relief.