Michael crashed ashore near Mexico Beach on Wednesday afternoon as one of the most powerful storms in U.S. history, with winds of up to 155 mph (250 kph). It pushed a wall of seawater inland, causing widespread flooding.
The tropical storm, which grew in less than two days into a Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, tore apart entire neighborhoods in the Panhandle, reducing homes to naked concrete foundations or piles of wood and siding.
Except for the emergency 911 system, authorities in Bay County, the epicenter of the disaster, were virtually without telephone or internet service until late on Friday, making communications internally and with the public difficult.
“We didn’t have anything,” said Ruth Corley, a spokeswoman for the Bay County Sheriff’s Department. “We’ve been writing things down on pieces of paper. We’re doing what we can with the minimal media that we have.”
She said local television stations were knocked off the air for two days, and authorities were relying on the Gulf State College radio station to transmit public service bulletins. Search teams went door-to-door hunting victims.
FEMA’s Long urged communities such as Mexico Beach, where many homes were pulverized by 12 to 14 feet (3.7 to 4.3 meters) of storm surge, to rebuild to withstand future storms.
“It’s OK if you want to live on the coast or on top of a mountain that sees wildfires or whatever, but you have to build to a higher standard,” he said. “If we’re going to rebuild, do it right.”
By Friday morning the storm remnants were about 275 miles (445 km) southwest of Nantucket, Massachusetts, packing maximum sustained winds of 65 mph (100 kph).
More than 940,000 homes and businesses on the U.S. East Coast were without power and it could be weeks before power is restored to the most damaged parts of Florida.
The numbers in emergency shelters were expected to swell to 20,000 across five states by Friday, said Brad Kieserman of the American Red Cross. The Coast Guard said it rescued 129 people.
Even as rescuers searched the rubble for survivors or the dead, some Mexico Beach residents were nervously trickling back, expressing hope the place, nicknamed “the Forgotten Coast,” would not change too much as it rebuilds.
“It was the perfect beach town. Not all of that commercialism,” said Dottie Sinclair, 57, a nurse, adding a Subway fast-food restaurant was the only commercial chain.
“I don’t think it will ever be the same,” said her husband Danny, 64, who is semi-retired. “People will just pack up and leave.”