After Hurricane Michael Carved Through Florida Panhandle, Recovery Work Begins

17 minutes ago

Search and rescue teams worked through the night in Florida to find people who need help, after Hurricane Michael hit the Panhandle as a historic Category 4 storm on Wednesday. More than 400,000 electricity accounts had lost power in Florida as of 9:15 a.m. ET.

Michael wrecked buildings and tore down trees in Panama City and nearby towns. The city of Tallahassee, known for its extensive tree canopy, says "thousands of trees are down."

The city adds that road crews worked throughout the night "to clear paths to both hospitals" — which are now open and operating.

Michael has been blamed for at least one death. Now a tropical storm, the system is moving through South Carolina on its way to North Carolina – two states that are still coping with the effects of flooding from Hurricane Florence.

Officials are still assessing the damage – and urging people to stay off the roads.

Reporting on the scene along Florida's Gulf Coast, NPR's Debbie Elliott says:

"Roads are impassable, covered by water and debris, including downed trees and power lines. Hurricane Michael's powerful winds ripped roofs from buildings — including a Panama City High school gym where some teachers and their families had taken shelter.

"In Bay County, officials have issued a boil water advisory and warn that county communications are hampered."

Bay County is also under a nighttime curfew, as officials hope to prevent looting and unnecessary travel. Early Thursday morning, several Florida counties that escaped the storm began sending work crews and heavy trucks to help clear roads and restore power.

As officials tried to get a grip on the situation and shift resources to where they're needed most, one of the biggest problems they face is an inability to communicate.

"We have almost no lines of communication," says Mario Gisbert, the city manager of Panama City Beach, in an interview with NPR. And by that, he said, "I mean, my police chief cannot communicate with my sheriff right now. Cell lines are down, radio towers are down."

The effects of hurricanes are notoriously random: one house can be left standing, while a neighboring house might be ripped off its foundation. Gisbert says Panama City Beach — which is several miles west of Panama City — escaped relatively unscathed.

"Almost every condo and every hotel is fine" at Panama City Beach, Gisbert said, adding that the town lost many signs and trees.

"But as soon as you cross another half-mile to the east, you can see where all the tornado paths were, and it's devastating."

Gisbert said the beach's police chief told him that "on 23rd Street, which is the main commercial drive through Panama City, they literally ran a bulldozer down the road to clear the debris."

Panama City Beach might be able to take in people who need a place to stay, or offer other help, he said. Part of the reason he made time to speak to Morning Edition, Gisbert said, was out of the hope that his contacts with the local power company might hear him and get a sense of what was going on.

While Michael was downgraded to a tropical storm due to its diminishing winds, National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham warns that the danger is still not over as the storm moves through the Carolinas.

Michael surprised many forecasters with its sharp and intense growth. The first weather advisory about the storm went out on Saturday; days later, it became one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to strike the U.S. mainland. While experts had warned it would strengthen early in the week, they did not predict 155-mph winds.

"Since 1851 our records don't show a category 4 making landfall in the Florida Panhandle," Graham told NPR's Rachel Martin.

Graham also discussed the speed with which this storm arrived. By contrast, Florence, which formed near the Cabo Verde Islands, had been the subject of advisories for more than two weeks before it made landfall.

"[When] you have storms that come across the Atlantic, you can see them for five, six, seven days," Graham said. "When they form in the Caribbean, there's just not a lot of real estate. So once they form and they start moving, especially with Michael moving during the life cycle anywhere from 12 to 15 mph, they get here quick."

After making landfall in Florida early Wednesday afternoon, Michael tore through the Panhandle and into Georgia, where rains of more than six inches were reported in some locations. It also brought winds topping 50-mph.

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