MEXICO BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) - Search-and-rescue workers scoured a stark scene of devastation on Thursday looking for hundreds of people who defied evacuation orders in Mexico Beach, Florida, “Ground Zero” of Hurricane Michael’s onslaught.
Nearly entire blocks of small two-story beach homes were razed to their tile floors, likely by the storm surge. Furniture, dishes and hot water tanks were strewn about roads and yards. Stands of pine were flattened.
Army personnel used heavy equipment to push a path through debris to allow rescuers through, as Blackhawk helicopters circled overhead looking for survivors.
At least six deaths, including four in Florida, have been blamed on Michael, the third-most powerful hurricane ever to hit the U.S. mainland.
The tiny tourist town of Mexico Beach in northwest Florida took a direct hit from Michael’s 155-mph (250-kph) top sustained winds and a storm surge of up to 9 feet (2.7 meters).
Mexico Beach’s city administrator said on Wednesday that 285 of the town’s 1,000 or so residents had defied evacuation orders.
“We survived the wind and rain,” said Terry Fuller, 57, who works at a rental car business and stayed through the hurricane.
“It was like being in a car wash for an hour and a half.”
Tom Adams, 65, runs a charter fishing business. But his two boats have disappeared with Michael. “Right at the end, it got very tough,” he said. “It was the tornadoes more than anything.”
For rescuers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, searching for survivors brought special challenges. On Thursday, supported by dogs, drones and GPS devices, they found homes in places where they were not a day before, making it difficult to do a methodical house-to-house survey.
“We prepare for the worst and hope for the best. This is obviously the worst,” said Stephanie Palmer, 48, a firefighter and FEMA rescuer from Coral Springs, Florida. “All the training we do doesn’t remove the human part of us. My heart goes out to these people.”
One FEMA rescuer stopped to help Bianna Kelsey, 56, out of a house that served as the office to a family construction business. She returned on Thursday to pick up family photos and needed help from FEMA to open the front door to get out. The hurricane had turned the house sideways off its foundation, scrambling its contents.
Afterward, she sat in the shade and broke down.
“I know, but we can rebuild it,” a FEMA rescuer said, putting his arm around her.
FEMA has no idea of the likelihood of rescuers finding survivors, or bodies, said spokesman Ignatius Carroll.
“We can’t search every pile of rubble.”
Reporting by Rod Nickel and Devika Krishna Kumar; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney