Michael demolishes houses in Florida’s Panhandle, and more destruction is emerging

In the decimated city of Callaway, pieces of obliterated houses litter rain-drenched roads. Every telephone pole in sight has snapped in half.

“It’s very hard to explain,” said Jason Gunderson, a member of the Cajun Navy rescue group. “The only way I can explain it, through my eyeballs, is a Third World country war zone.”

Similar scenes are emerging across the Florida Panhandle, where Hurricane Michael left more than 350,000 without power and entire neighborhoods in ruins after hitting Wednesday afternoon near Mexico Beach as a powerful Category 4 storm.

“It feels like a nightmare,” Mexico Beach Councilwoman Linda Albrecht said of the catastrophic damage in her town. “Somebody needs to come up and shake you and wake you up.”

The storm has already killed a girl in Florida and a man in Georgia. And as rescue workers sift through the debris Thursday, many fear the death toll will rise.

After slamming Florida and lashing Georgia, Michael is now threatening the storm-weary Carolinas.

Track the storm

The Carolinas are bracing for possible flooding, tornadoes and dangerous winds in many of the same areas still recovering from Hurricane Florence flooding.

Michael is expected to drop 4 to 7 inches of rain from eastern Georgia to the southern mid-Atlantic and up to 9 inches of rain in isolated parts of North Carolina and Virginia, the National Hurricane Center said.

“While we will not see the full force of Hurricane Michael the way Florida will, we could see gusty winds, rain, flash flooding and even tornadoes,” South Carolina Emergency Management Director Kim Stenson told CNN affiliate WACH.

Key developments

• Death toll rises: At least two people have been killed in storm-related incidents since Wednesday.

• No power, no internet: More than 500,000 customers remain without electricity in Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

• Where is Michael? As of early Thursday morning, the storm is about 30 miles west of Augusta, Georgia, and is heading toward the northeast before it goes off into the Atlantic.

• Looters arrested: Arrests have been made after reports of looting in Bay County, Florida, US Rep. Neal Dunn said.

‘I just need to know he’s OK’

Uprooted trees, downed power poles and limited access to communications have become challenges for first responders and families trying to reach residents in need.

Megan McCall says her brother Jeff and his family were riding out the storm in the Panhandle. No one has heard from them since Wednesday afternoon.

Her brother was able to tell a friend that his home was starting to get cracks in the walls and water was rushing in Wednesday. A neighbor told McCall that all the docks in the area were destroyed and many people are stuck in their homes as the roads have been blocked with debris.

“I just need to know he’s OK,” McCall said. “If the house and the cars are destroyed they can be replaced, but my niece needs her dad — and as much as I sometimes can’t stand him, I would do anything to just know he’s OK.”

In Wakulla County, the sheriff’s office made a list of people who decided to ride out the storm and will begin the process of checking on them Thursday, sheriff’s captain Chris Savary said.

An 11-year-old girl was killed in Seminole County, Georgia. A metal carport was picked up by the wind and crashed through a roof, hitting the girl’s head, said Travis Brooks, the county’s emergency management director.

Brooks said several hours passed before emergency officials could reach the unincorporated area where the girl was killed.

And in Greensboro, Florida, a man died Wednesday after a tree fell on a home, the Gadsden County Sheriff’s Office said.

Military base affected

On the Florida Panhandle, wind gusts blew off roofs and knocked down brick walls.

Rob Golding opened up his home to some of his neighbors whose homes were heavily damaged. Some were inside their homes when they saw their roofs fly away, he said.

“My home was built in 1962 (and) is the only one with a solid roof left,” Golding said. “My mother, who passed two years ago, she put a lot of money in this house. I asked her to keep her hands on it today, and she did.”

“It looks like a tornado came through here,” he said.

Military families are among the thousands who evacuated before the storm and won’t be able to return home immediately.

Officials at the Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City said dozens of trees and power lines went down, and several buildings lost their roofs across the military base. They said it could take weeks before it’s safe for personnel and their families to return.

Effect of climate change

Michael’s strength may reflect the effect of climate change on storms. The planet has warmed significantly over the past several decades, causing changes in the environment.

Human-caused greenhouse gases in the atmosphere create an energy imbalance, with more than 90% of remaining heat trapped by the gases going into the oceans, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. There’s evidence of higher sea surface temperature and atmospheric moisture, experts say.

While we might not get more storms in a warmer climate, most studies show storms will get stronger and produce more rain. Storm surge is worse now than it was 100 years ago, thanks to the rise in sea levels.

According to Climate Central, a scientific research organization, the coming decades are expected to bring hurricanes that intensify more rapidly, should there be no change in the rate of greenhouse gas emissions.