MIAMI Amid the devastation caused by Hurricane Michael, rescue operations in the southeastern United States have focused Saturday on Mexico Beach and Panama City, two Florida towns that were nearly flattened and that could raise the death toll from the storm, which has taken at least 17 lives.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott accompanied the National Guard on Saturday to survey the devastation by air, centering on the counties of Franklin, Holmes, Washington and Gadsden, in the northwestern part of the state, where Michael made landfall on Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane.
The search for victims has been slow because numerous roads and highways have been blocked by rubble or destroyed, while cell phone service outages have prevented authorities and family members from locating missing people.
The destruction has been especially severe in Mexico Beach, where the water, sewage and communications systems were destroyed, which could take months to repair.
Not one single store is left, Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey told reporters.
Cathey himself had been unable to communicate with state authorities and has relied on satellite phones brought by media outlets.
Authorities have been inspecting every house and boat or what is left of them with the help of search and rescue dogs to find people who are unaccounted for.
Some 30 km (20 mi) west of Mexico Beach, the school gym of Panama City has become the symbol of the devastation caused by Michael in this Florida town, where residents began to return Saturday to search for their belongings among the rubble.
So far, eight people have been reported dead in Florida, five in Virginia, three in North Carolina and one person was killed in Georgia.
Authorities, however, have not been able to identify any of the victims yet.
The death toll from Hurricane Michael is expected to increase, especially as rescue operations continue in Mexico Beach, one the hardest-hit towns.
Meanwhile, according to the webpage Poweroutage.us, which gathers live data from utilities throughout the United States, 750,000 homes and businesses continue to be without power in Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia.
Earlier this week, President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency in Florida, which authorizes the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate rescue efforts and make federal funding available to address the situation.