Hurricane Michael — which has now been downgraded to a tropical storm — has officially caused at least 13 deaths in three states, and the toll is only expected to rise in the coming days, according to the New York Times.
Michael slammed into the Panhandle as one of the most powerful storms to ever hit the United States, with sustained winds reaching 155 mph when it made landfall on Wednesday afternoon. Aerial photographs of Michael’s aftermath showed entire neighborhoods flattened by the storm and the coast’s once rich landscape now decimated.
“Before, it was paradise,” Lance Hanson, who lives in Mexico Beach, told NPR. “It was the most beautiful, secret location you could have for a vacation. The best beach in the world.”
Hanson, like many residents, is coping with the reality that the area he called home will likely never be as he remembers it.
“This is a war zone. How are you going to get out of here?” Hanson told the radio station. “This city is destroyed. The whole area … they’re going to tear down these houses and rebuild it. You’re not going to recognize Mexico Beach.”
Dawn Vickers, another resident from Mexico Beach, told CNN that she returned to the city to find her home and vehicle destroyed.
“This has been the worst nightmare I’ve ever been through in my life,” she said.
Falling trees and flying debris became one of the most dangerous aspects of the storm, as an 11-year-old girl from Seminole County was killed when a dislodged metal carport hit and pierced the roof of her grandparents’ home; a 38-year-old man from North Carolina died when a tree fell on the car he was driving, and another man was killed by a falling tree in his Greensboro home.
As officials make their way through the devastation in the coming days, they anticipate the death toll will climb.
“I expect the fatality count to rise today and tomorrow as we get through the debris,” Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long said Friday morning, according to CNN.
Unfortunately, some of those deaths may have been preventable, as officials say many residents ignored mandatory warnings to evacuate the Gulf Coast before the storm hit.
Mishelle McPherson helped to search for the elderly mother of a friend in Mexico Beach, who lived along the coast and felt she didn’t need to evacuate.
“Do you think her body would be here? Do you think it would have floated away?” McPherson asked while climbing over piles of concrete and wood, according to the Associated Press.
Though the storm has weakened and the worst is over, at least 1.27 million people in seven states are without power, including 495,000 in North Carolina, according to CNN. Areas of Virginia and North Carolina are still experiencing flash floods.
On Thursday, Florida Governor Rick Scott tried to describe the devastation.
“So many lives have been changed forever,” he said. “So many families have lost everything.”