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Florida resident surveys ‘total devastation’ from Hurricane Michael

The death toll from Hurricane Michael reached at least 13 people and is expected to climb. Many of those who did survive don’t have water or power. Grocery stores and gas stations in the hardest hit areas remain closed. Judy Woodruff discusses the vast scale of destruction in the Florida panhandle with William Brantley.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The death toll from Hurricane Michael rose to at least 13 people to — excuse me — people today in the wake of the storm's devastation across five states.

    Five are known dead in Virginia, including a firefighter, another four in Florida, one in Georgia, and three who died in North Carolina. Search-and-rescue teams combing through the catastrophic destruction in Mexico Beach, Florida, have found more bodies. But they have yet to be added to the official death toll.

    William Brangham is in the Florida Panhandle, and has this report.

  • William Brangham:

    What was a vacation destination now looks more like a war zone. The destruction in the small town of Mexico Beach is near total, all homes and buildings wiped completely off the white sand beach.

    Entire blocks are now just piles of rubble and debris.

  • Fran Boaz:

    Total devastation. Every piece of property, if it hasn't got something wrong with that, it's leveled. Things that were on the beach are now on the other side of the street.

  • William Brangham:

    Some people here but they could ride out the storm. But then came winds at 155 miles per hour, driving an enormous wall of water right into town.

  • Dawn Vickers:

    I noticed that things seemed to be moving outside. And I thought that trees were going by. And I realized it was our house. It had been broken off the foundation and was floating around, as were both of our vehicles.

  • William Brangham:

    Here in Panama City, which is about 20 miles from Mexico Beach, a lot of residents here also chose not to evacuate. Earlier this week, the governor had issued a mandatory evacuation order for this region.

    But you have to remember that, back then, Michael was only a Category 1 storm.

    Cory Clifton Trench was in his house when Michael hit. His grandmother and 10-year-old sister evacuated, but he and his dad stayed.

  • Man:

    Barricaded my father, put a chair in, put the helmet on.

  • William Brangham:

    Really?

  • Man:

    Yes. I was praying that it would hurry up and end, because we didn't have too much longer. We had the bathroom at that end, because my room — blew off part of it.

  • William Brangham:

    You were hunkered down in the bathroom the whole time?

  • Man:

    I thought I was going to get crushed. I thought I was going to die.

  • William Brangham:

    The back of their house was torn off, as was the roof. They have lost everything.

    Did you guys have any insurance on this?

  • Man:

    None. We couldn't get any because the roof was in such bad shape before.

  • William Brangham:

    So what are you guys going to do?

  • Man:

    Whatever we can, I guess.

  • William Brangham:

    Neighbor Terry Stewart was in his home next door when Michael hit.

  • Terry Stewart:

    I have stayed through a few of them. But this one was the final one.

  • William Brangham:

    Why did you decide to stay? I'm curious.

  • Terry Stewart:

    We were just going to get rain off of this. And then, if it was Category 3 or less, I was staying. And then, at the last minute, I'm just like, well, I'm staying now.

  • Woman:

    It will be my last one, I promise you.

  • William Brangham:

    Meaning next time one comes, you're out of here?

  • Woman:

    Oh, yes, yes, because, I mean, we didn't expect it to be like that. And then it just changes so quickly on you.

  • William Brangham:

    In these communities now, there's no power or running water and very limited communications.

  • Brock Long:

    There's no infrastructure there to support you. And, quite honestly, it's a dangerous area to go back into.

  • William Brangham:

    FEMA Administrator Brock Long said crews are moving food, water and other supplies to the area. But he had some strong words for those who chose not to evacuate.

  • Brock Long:

    It's frustrating to us, because we repeat this cycle over and over again.

  • William Brangham:

    Long said he expected the death toll to climb as crews finally begin reaching the hardest-hit communities.

  • Brock Long:

    It's not the wind blowing them apart. It's the ocean and crashing waves going in. And 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.

  • William Brangham:

    After hitting the Florida Panhandle, the remnants of Michael caused deadly flash flooding across North Carolina and Virginia overnight, before heading out into the Atlantic Ocean today.

  • North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper:

    Today, our state begins recovering from yet another storm.

  • William Brangham:

    North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said rescue crews were working around the clock, this coming just a month after Hurricane Florence struck the eastern part of his state.

  • North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper:

    During Michael, we saw rain totaling almost 10 inches in Allegheny County and most things in between. This morning, nearly half-a-million North Carolina homes and businesses are without power.

  • William Brangham:

    Back in Panama City, people are starting to put their lives back together. They're glad to be safe. And, to a person, everyone told us that this is the last hurricane they will try to ride out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And William joins me now.

    So, William, you are now in Panama City. That's close to where the hurricane came ashore. Tell us what you're seeing there.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, the scale of destruction here is just incredibly vast.

    Out on the coast, which is about a mile in that direction, we saw what the storm surge did to those communities. That wall of water just ripped buildings right off their foundations.

    Further inland, which is where we are right now, the destruction is much more vast. It's over a much bigger area. And it's largely the wind that brought down these trees. Everywhere we go, we see trees that have come down. They have pulled power lines down. They have damaged people's houses.

    I mean, the street behind me right now is probably the clearest road we have seen all day long. You can probably hear chain saws behind me.

    Everyone is working to try to clean their house as best they can, put a tarp on the roof if the rains come again. But, basically, nobody has water. Nobody has power. The grocery storms are closed, the gas stations are closed. So how long residents here can keep living like this is not clear.

    But they have months and months before anything gets back to normal here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what about the relief effort? Are there enough rescue, recovery people there in the area?

  • William Brangham:

    Well, right now, Judy, there are plenty of rescue crews. We have seen ambulance fire, police. We have seen FEMA. We have seen a lot of volunteers. We have seen the Cajun Navy. Those folks are here as well.

    So one of the biggest issues is that they're — just because of all these trees are down. They basically need a million chain saws to come into this area, clear those trees out. And only then can they start to reestablish power.

    The other thing that's very difficult is the issue of communication. There's almost no cell phone connection here. Nobody has actual landlines to make phone calls. And so a lot of people that we know of who live outside of this area, they have friends or family and loved ones who were here during the storm.

    The minute the power went out, the minute the cell phone towers got knocked out, they lost that communication. So there's just a great deal of confusion. People have been asking us all day, what can we tell them about what it's like in the next town over? Where can they find power? Where can they find gas?

    So, people are just confused as to whether their loved ones are OK, where to go, what to do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    William, we heard from FEMA Administrator Brock Long today. He was expressing disappointment that more people hadn't evacuated. Are you getting a sense of why people chose to stay?

  • William Brangham:

    There are a lot of reasons why people didn't evacuate.

    One, the Florida Panhandle hasn't seen a storm like this in a very, very long time. So residents here simply don't have an experience with that kind of a storm.

    Secondly, it's important to remember that, Tuesday morning, this was a Category 1 storm. And almost overnight that turned into a near Category 5 storm. So, by the time people finally decided maybe that they should go, it might have been too late for them.

    And that rapid intensification of a hurricane has become something we have seen more and more of recently. We have seen three, four, five storms like that in the past year, most notably Maria that destroyed Puerto Rico.

    And this intensification is caused by a lot of factors, but one of them is warmer Gulf waters. If a storm can get over a warmer body of water, it will rapidly accelerate. And that's what we saw here.

    And this is what climate change models have always predicted, that, as waters warm, these kinds of storms will intensify. And so, obviously, the problem we have here is that more people are moving to the coast, and now we know we are going to have more of these intensifying storms.

    There's a conflict there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    William, thank you, William Brangham reporting for us from the Florida Panhandle.

  • William Brangham:

    Thanks, Judy.

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