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  • Searchers raise official death toll from category four storm to 14
  • Officials say 285 people may have defied evacuation order

Hurricane Michael: footage shows devastation in Florida’s Mexico Beach – video

Rescuers intensified their efforts on Saturday in the attempt to find survivors amid the ruins of a small Florida Panhandle community that was nearly obliterated by Hurricane Michael. One body had already been recovered.

Crews with dogs went door-to-door in Mexico Beach, pushing aside debris to get inside badly damage structures in a second wave of searches after what leaders said was an initial and “hasty” search of the area.

Authorities said there was little doubt the death toll would rise from the storm, which made landfall on Wednesday as a category four hurricane with 155mph winds and heavy storm surge. The tally of lives lost across the south stood at 14, including the victim found in the rubble of Mexico Beach, where about 1,000 people live.

“Everything is time-consuming,” said Capt Ignatius Carroll, of the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue task force. “You don’t want to put a rush on a thorough rescue.”

More roads were passable along the storm-ravaged coast as crews cleared trees and power lines, but traffic lights remained out and lines at the few gas stations that were open were five to six cars deep. Schools will stay closed indefinitely, a hospital halted operations and sent 200 patients elsewhere in Florida and in Alabama.

More than 253,000 customers remained without power in the Panhandle. Gulf Power officials said some areas could get their power restored in the next two days but it may take six days to restore electricity to three counties near the Georgia border. Officials did not have estimates on how long it would take to restore power for downtown Panama City and other towns on the coast. 

Florida governor Rick Scott said he was calling up 500 more members of the national guard, making 4,000 such troops deployed in addition to nearly 2,000 law-enforcement officials. 

Some residents decided to clear out for good. Jeff and Katrina Pearsey, with a ruined rental home in the Panama City area and no indication of when they could again earn a living, said they were heading all the way to Bangor, Maine, where Katrina once worked as a nurse. Several trees came down on their property, including one that smashed through their roof.

“We’re getting our stuff and we’re going,” said Jeff Pearsey, 48. “We’re probably done with Panama City.”

Miami fire chief Joseph Zahralban, the leader of a search-and-rescue unit combing the wreckage of Mexico Beach, said searchers were trying to determine if the person found dead on Friday had been alone or was part of a family.

Michael was one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever make landfall in the US. While most evacuated, others stayed. Some barely escaped with their lives as homes were pushed off their foundations and whole neighborhoods became submerged.

Hector Morales, a 57-year-old restaurant cook, never even thought of evacuating. When his mobile home began floating, he jumped out, swam to a fishing boat and clambered aboard.

“I lost everything,” Morales said. “But I made it.”

How many were not so fortunate was still not clear. By one count, state officials said, 285 people in Mexico Beach defied evacuation orders. It was unclear how many people stayed behind in nearby communities.

One who did, Albert Blackwell, was preparing on Saturday to cover holes in the roof of his apartment and take a chain saw to trees that fell and broke his windows just outside Panama City.

“I’m the idiot that rode it out here in this place,” said Blackwell, 65, sweat dripping from his face. He figured rebuilding will take months, but he doesn’t plan to leave.

“The immediate day after [landfall], I stopped looters from coming in here,” he said. “We’re staying to protect our place.”

Emergency officials said they had received thousands of calls about missing people, but with cellphone service out they found it impossible to know who among those unaccounted for were safe but just unable to dial out to friends or family.

Dough Shelby looks from his house to the destruction in Mexico Beach.

Dough Shelby looks from his house to the destruction in Mexico Beach. Photograph: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long said he expected the death toll to 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.”

Authorities set up distribution centers to dole out food and water. They also set up a triage tent to treat residents stepping on nails and cutting themselves on debris.

Donald Trump announced plans to visit Florida and Georgia early next week but didn’t say what day he would arrive. “We are with you!” he tweeted.

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 before 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.