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Parts of Florida Panhandle unreachable after Hurricane Michael

Along the Florida Panhandle, Hurricane Michael wreaked catastrophic damage. Winds of 155 miles per hour slammed into Mexico Beach and Panama City. Over a million people are without power, emergency responders are challenged by the loss of cell phone service and some hospital patients have had to be evacuated. From Quincy, Florida, William Brangham reports the latest to Judy Woodruff.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The governor of Florida calls it unimaginable destruction. He is referring to the Florida Panhandle 24 hours after Hurricane Michael smashed ashore.

    The hurricane left at least six dead and hundreds unaccounted for. Today, it is moving across Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia as a tropical storm.

    William Brangham spent part of this day in the Florida Panhandle and reports from Quincy, Florida.

  • William Brangham:

    As Hurricane Michael came ashore, roofs went flying.

  • Sabrina Marshall:

    He said, move, move, move. And the door flew open, and the roof flew off.

  • William Brangham:

    Trees toppled over.

    The full force of the storm with its 155 mile-an-hour winds bore down on the coastal towns of Panama City and Mexico Beach along Florida's Panhandle. Many of Mexico Beach's buildings appeared to be pulverized by the storm, bearing the full brunt of Michael's impact.

    As the winds finally relented and day broke, an army of utility workers mobilized. They're fanning out to restore electricity for the nearly one million customers without power across the Southeast.

  • Florida Gov. Rick Scott:

    We are deploying a massive wave of response, and those efforts are already under way. Help is coming by air, land and sea.

  • William Brangham:

    Some of the hardest-hit areas here in the Florida Panhandle are still too difficult to reach. And as you drive around, you just see miles and miles that look like this, big pine trees that have come down. They have brought power lines with them. And it's left entire communities stranded.

    Local officials described widespread overwhelming damage.

  • Barry Wilcox:

    We got a lot of downed trees. We got a lot of downed limbs. We have got blocked roads, power outages almost ubiquitous at this point. But we're getting everybody up online as quickly as possible.

    It's not our first rodeo. We have done in the last two years, so we're — we're getting pretty darn good at it and making a lot of headway by the minute.

  • William Brangham:

    The storm surge crashed past trees and onto roads near Apalachicola National Forest. Many of the pine trees that the Panhandle is famous for were decimated.

  • Andrew Lamonica:

    Snapped trees like they were toothpicks. There was nothing to it. So I'm glad I'm still here. I'm glad I survived. I'm glad the car made it.

  • Karen Haskett:

    I prayed a lot. I was in a bunker, almost a bunker. And just prayers. And how half of this missed us, I have no godly idea.

  • William Brangham:

    Last night, sheets of rain when buffeted the coastline for hours on end. Scientists say increasingly strong hurricanes have been intensified by the effects of climate change, as warmer water provides more energy and moisture that feeds the storm.

    President Trump praised the response.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Everybody has gotten rave reviews. I just spoke with Governor Scott. They're very happy. Food is being now — following the hurricane being brought in. And we have unbelievable, large amounts of water and food and everything that people can want.

  • William Brangham:

    This morning, Vice President Mike Pence said that the government was actively engaged.

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    The president and I have been focused on our response efforts. We have taken decisive action. And, as we speak, we are focused on the lifesaving mission, search-and-rescue, and beginning to assess the catastrophic impacts of this hurricane.

  • William Brangham:

    The storm made its way up the Southeast Coast and dumped more rain on already saturated North Carolina. Governor Roy Cooper said the state was on high alert for more flooding.

  • North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper:

    The rain, over six inches now in parts of Western North Carolina. North Carolina was spared the vicious beating Michael brought to Florida and parts of Georgia. But this storm will not go down without a fight. It is still a threat and should be taken seriously, particularly with storm surge,high winds, flooding and the threat of tornadoes.

  • William Brangham:

    For the "PBS NewsHour" in the Panhandle of Florida, I'm William Brangham.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I spoke with William a short time ago from Quincy, Florida.

    William, I understand you are about 70 miles from the coast where the storm came ashore. Tell us what it is like where you are.

  • William Brangham:

    Well, Judy, in the stretch that we have seen so far, it is a story of tree after tree after tree after tree being knocked over by Hurricane Michael.

    I mean, this stretch of the Florida Panhandle is known for its lush canopy. And now the high winds of that storm have turned all those trees into — into this community's nightmare. Power lines have been knocked down. It's part of why there's over a million people who have no power.

    Those high winds that came in late last night also have knocked out all the cell phone towers around here. So communication is very difficult. We heard on the radio today one local public official who was using the radio, a radio interview, to try to communicate with one of their own emergency managers somewhere, that they couldn't find them, simply because they couldn't pick up a phone that would actually work.

    So restoring power has been a huge issue here. You might hear trucks behind me. That's really the armada utility trucks that are coming through this entire area, trying to restore power. But just from what we saw, the amount of power lines we saw down on the ground, it's going to be a long time for these communities to get their power back.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Seeing those images from the coast in Mexico Beach and Panama City, the destruction seems so severe.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    The devastation along the coastline is just — there really are no words to describe how bad that damage is. And I think that's simply a function of, if you have a Category 4 storm that was very nearly a Category 5 coming in, 155-mile-an-hour winds,there's only so much you can do.

    I mean, if you remember, Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, and building codes across the state were strengthened. But in the face of a Category 4, with already high tides and that wall of water and that amount of wind, there's only so much you can re-engineer against that kind of a force.

    And so that's really going to be one of the ongoing challenges here, is, how do they rebuild knowing that this storm, this kind of a storm could come again next week, next month, next year?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I understand some medical facilities were damaged and officials have had to evacuate patients?

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    It's our understanding that at least two hospitals in Panama City, Florida, right along the coast had to evacuate wait their patients. They have lost power. They have no fresh water coming in there.

    We believe it's around 300 patients that had to be evacuated. Bay Medical apparently was one of the bigger hospitals there. They had an intense damage to their intensive care unit. There were windows knocked out. Apparently, there's some flooding inside the building.

    And so if a hospital can't keep the power on regularly, can't get fresh water to run the toilets and to simply have drinking water, it's simply safer. So they are moving patients out of there to nearby hospitals to the east and the west that might have some power. So we will be watching that closely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    William, thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    Thanks, Judy.

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