Michael claims second life, a child in mobile home, on its way to Carolinas
The remnants of Hurricane Michael continued to batter the Southeast, pummeling states with powerful rain, wind and flooding even after being downgraded to a tropical storm.
Michael made landfall in the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday as a "potentially catastrophic" Category 4 storm - the strongest hurricane on record to hit the area - and continued to charge north, wreaking havoc and prompting emergencies. Darkness concealed the full extent of the damage left behind, but a second death was reported early Thursday, apparently caused by debris crashing through a mobile home and killing a child inside.
FEMA Administrator Brock Long said early Thursday that "search and rescue is where we are hyper-focused this morning" - particularly in Mexico Beach, Florida, which "was wiped out" by Hurricane Michael's storm surge, he said.
"We have a lot of work to do … there's a lot of debris that we've got to get through," Long said on CNN. "We're trying to get into areas like Mexico Beach, get the teams in to be able to assess damage."
Long was asked about Michael's confirmed death toll, which stands at two. "Those numbers could climb," he said. "Hopefully they don't, but those numbers could climb as search-and-rescue teams get out."
The sun will rise across the Florida Panhandle sometime around 7 on Thursday, and Hurricane Michael's trail of destruction will begin to come into clearer focus. But the early indicators are troubling.
Consider what storm chaser Josh Morgerman tweeted Wednesday night: "It's hard to convey in words the scale of the catastrophe in Panama City. The whole city looks like a nuke was dropped on it. I'm literally shocked at the scale of the destruction."
Morgerman has chased some of the most extreme hurricanes and typhoons across the world. As the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang noted, "he is not prone to hyperbole."
Early Thursday, he said that Michael was "definitely one of the most violent [hurricanes] I've been in."
Another storm chaser, Mark Sudduth, tweeted: "Drove from Panama City almost to Mexico Beach and I can tell you this is the worst damage from wind that I have ever seen! Absolutely catastrophic! You will not believe your eyes when you see it."
Sudduth added: "Walking thru Mexico Beach to receive my GoPro cam and I'm telling you, it's DEVASTATED. Truly devastated. Some buildings completely swept clean - only slabs."
Michael weakened as it crossed rain-soaked Georgia and moved northeast toward South Carolina, the National Hurricane Center said. By 2 a.m., sustained winds had decreased to 60 mph; at 5 a.m., they had fallen to 50 mph.
However, the center said, winds have picked up at certain points along the Georgia and South Carolina coast. Large parts of Georgia, the Carolinas and southeastern Virginia could still see deadly flash floods today and remain under a tropical storm warning.
The storm's center is currently about 30 miles west of Augusta, Georgia, near the South Carolina border. Forecasters expect that Michael will continue to weaken Thursday as the storm travels over land, likely reaching central South Carolina Thursday morning. Once Michael reaches the Atlantic, the storm is expected to intensify again as it becomes a post-tropical low.
On Wednesday night, Apple CEO Tim Cook pledged that the company would help with recovery and relief efforts. "I grew up on the shores of the Gulf Coast, near Pensacola and Mobile, and that region holds a special place in my heart," he wrote on Twitter. "That's never been more true than now."
Cook grew up in Robertsdale, Alabama, a city of roughly 5,200 people located roughly halfway between Mobile and Pensacola, Florida. His father worked at Mobile's shipyards, and his mother worked at a drugstore.
Though Cook has called himself a "a proud son of the South," his relationship with the socially conservative community where he grew up is complicated. When Cook came out as gay in 2014, Robertsdale Mayor Charles Murphy suggested that he should have kept his sexual orientation private. "Tim has done a good job with Apple. We're very proud of the accomplishments that he's made," he told Reuters. "Sometimes people's personal lives need to stay personal."
Visiting Robertsdale in 2016, The Washington Post's Todd Frankel noted that Cook's name wasn't on the town's welcome signs, the chamber of commerce brochures, or at his old high school. One former classmate speculated that the lack of recognition might be connected to Cook's advocacy for gay rights.
High winds led to the death of an 11-year-old girl in Seminole County, Georgia, EMA Director Travis Brooks told The Washington Post early Thursday morning. The girl had been inside a trailer home in an unincorporated area of the county near Lake Seminole, close to the Florida-Georgia border. From what officials could determine, Brooks said, it looked like a metal carport used to store boats had been lifted in the air by the gusting winds and had flipped over. When it landed, its legs crashed through the roof of a neighboring mobile home and hit the girl in the head.
"It looked like a war zone," Brooks said, adding that it had taken deputies from the Seminole County Sheriff's Office practically all day to get to the mobile home due to the road conditions in the area.
Meanwhile, the Waffle House near Florida State University's campus in Tallahassee was open for business at 12:28 a.m., with lines stretching out the door. FEMA officials famously use the Waffle House Index as a way of measuring storm damage: Since the diner chain is ubiquitous in the southeast, and rarely shuts down in extreme weather, seeing the Waffle House closed down before a storm is a sign that things are about to get extremely bad. If the Waffle House hasn't reopened after the storm, FEMA considers that a sign that the area has experienced major devastation.
On Wednesday morning, a Waffle House spokesman had announced that 30 restaurants in Florida and Georgia were closed in preparation for Hurricane Michael, including locations along the Florida Panhandle from Panama City to Destin. It was a clear warning that the storm should be taken seriously.
Images of the destruction in coastal Florida towns circulated widely Wednesday night, shocking even seasoned storm chasers and weather watchers. Franklin County Sheriff A.J Smith told CNN that the county was nearly isolated after most of the main roads were rendered impassable from flooding and downed trees.
"It's bad," he said. "We've been through hurricanes but never where we were completely cut off like this."
Linda Albrecht, a councilwoman in Mexico Beach, spoke to the network about leaving her home with only a few essential objects.
"It feels like a nightmare," she said. "Looking at the pictures, I'm thinking there is not a house left in that town."
The storm knocked the broadcast of Panama City-based WMBB off the air after the television station lost power, one of more than 263,000 customers experiencing blackouts in Florida. But that didn't stop the journalists from getting the report out.
Reporter Peyton LoCicero went on Periscope, an app that allows people to live stream to a public audience from a cellphone, to give updates about the storm. She spoke from the parking lot of a wrecked gas station in Walton County, tilting the camera to show the damage around her. The station's awning had crashed to the ground.
"I wanted to let you guys know exactly what is going on," she said, speaking about a curfew that had been instituted in nearby Bay County because of concerns about looting from the outages.
More than 17,000 people tuned into the broadcast, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who shared LoCicero's impromptu report on Twitter.
The first confirmed fatality of the storm was recorded Wednesday. The Gadsden County Sheriff's office said that a man was found dead in his home in a small town outside of Tallahassee after a tree crashed through the roof. Sgt. Angela Hightower did not identify the man but said he had been found at the home in Greensboro around 6 p.m.
This article was written by Mark Berman, Eli Rosenberg and Antonia Noori Farzan, reporters for The Washington Post.