Florida Governor Rick Scott promised a strong relief effort from his administration Thursday after the state was slammed by Hurricane Michael, the most powerful storm on record in Florida’s Panhandle and the third strongest on record to hit the U.S. mainland.
“We are going to be aggressive with recovery and response over the coming days and will do everything we can to assist our communities that have seen impacts from this devastating storm,” Scott said.
He also called on people in hurricane-hit communities to stay in their homes to give emergency crews room to carry out their work.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator William “Brock” Long said Thursday on CNN “search and rescue is where we are hyper-focused this morning.” Long said Mexico Beach, Florida “was wiped out” by the storm surge and efforts were underway to “get the teams in to assess damage.”
Long said another priority was to restore power to nearly 800,000 homes and businesses in Florida, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.
Winds lessen, rain a threat
The National Hurricane Center downgraded Michael to a tropical storm early Thursday, saying its maximum winds had dropped below the threshold for a hurricane.
But while the winds eased, the threat of flooding rain, including in areas already soaked by a recent hurricane along the U.S. East Coast, persisted. Forecasters said heavy rains could still produce “life-threatening” flash flooding over parts of Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia.
The storm’s center was moving over South Carolina Thursday morning as its tropical force winds churned over parts of southeastern Georgia and central and eastern South Carolina. Michael is forecast to move over central and eastern North Carolina, which is still recovering from Hurricane Florence, and southeastern Virginia later Thursday.
Michael was forecast to take a path across South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia before moving over the Atlantic Ocean by Friday morning. Those states could receive 10 to 18 centimeters of rain.
Authorities have attributed at least two deaths to the storm, one in Florida and the other in Georgia.
Michael made landfall Wednesday in the Florida Panhandle with maximum sustained winds of 249 kilometers per hour, putting it just below Category 5 status that tops the scale used to describe the strength and destructive potential of hurricanes.
“We are catching some hell” was how a Panama City Beach resident who decided to ride it out described Michael as it made landfall.
The storm blew down trees and utility wires throughout Florida Gulf Coast towns, while also ripping off roofs and inundating areas with several meters of storm surge.
Trump in touch with local officials
President Donald Trump has been in touch with state governors and said a federal emergency team is standing by and ready to help with storm recovery. He said he plans to visit storm-ravaged areas as soon as he can.
Michael caused destruction in western Cuba and parts of Central America before striking the United States.
At least 13 storm-related deaths have been reported in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
The Atlantic hurricane season began in June and ends November 30.