Rescuers, army search Michael survivors

Rescuers have searched for survivors in the rubble of ravaged beach communities after Michael, one of the most powerful hurricanes in US history, slammed into the Florida Panhandle, causing widespread flooding and killing at least seven people.

Michael struck Florida’s northwest coast near the small town of Mexico Beach on Wednesday with top sustained winds of 250km per hour pushing a wall of seawater inland.

The storm tore entire neighbourhoods apart, reducing homes and businesses to piles of wood and siding, damaging roads and leaving scenes of devastation that resembled the aftermath of a carpet-bombing operation.

US Army personnel used heavy equipment to push a path through debris in Mexico Beach to allow rescuers through to search for trapped residents, survivors or casualties, as Blackhawk helicopters circled overhead.

Rescuers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency used dogs, drones and GPS in the search.

Much of downtown Port St. Joe, 19 km east of Mexico Beach, was flooded after Michael snapped boats in two and hurled a large ship onto the shore, residents said.

“We had houses that were on one side of the street and now they’re on the other,” said Mayor Bo Patterson, who watched trees fly by his window as he rode out the storm in his home seven blocks from the beach.

Patterson estimated 1,000 homes were completely or partially destroyed in his town of 3,500 people.

With a low barometric pressure recorded at 919 millibars, a measure of a hurricane’s force, Michael was the third strongest storm on record to hit the continental United States, behind only Hurricane Camille on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969 and the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 in the Florida Keys.

It weakened overnight to a tropical storm.

It was still toppling trees with 80 kmph winds and bringing life-threatening flash flooding to areas of Georgia and Virginia, still recovering from Hurricane Florence as it marched northeast.

At least seven people were killed in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina from falling trees and other hurricane-related incidents, according to state officials.

Emergency services carried out dozens of rescues of people caught in swiftly moving floodwaters in North Carolina.

Many of the injured in Florida were taken to hard-hit Panama City, 32 km northwest of Mexico Beach.

Gulf Coast Regional Medical Centre was treating some, but the hospital evacuated 130 patients as it faced challenges running on generators after the storm knocked out power, ripped off part of its roof and smashed windows.

Almost 1.2 million homes and businesses were without power from Florida to Virginia on Thursday because of the storm.

The number of people in emergency shelters was expected to swell to 20,000 across five states by Friday, said Brad Kieserman of the American Red Cross.

Brad Rippey, a meteorologist for the US Agriculture Department, said Michael severely damaged cotton, timber, pecans and peanuts, causing estimated liabilities as high as $US1.9 billion and affecting up to 1.5 million crop hectares.

Michael also disrupted energy operations in the US Gulf of Mexico as it approached land, cutting crude oil production by more than 40 per cent and natural gas output by nearly one-third as offshore platforms were evacuated.

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