Rescuers rush to areas hardest hit by Hurricane Michael

Using heavy equipment to push aside debris and with helicopters circling overhead, rescuers in the Florida Panhandle searched for trapped residents as officials warned on Friday the death toll from Hurricane Michael was expected to rise.

Death toll rises to 16 as rescuers reach communities that bore brunt of storm's wrath

Monica Fabie, right, is hugged by her friend Casey Whatler as she picks through what is left of her business in Mexico Beach, Fla., after it was destroyed by Hurricane Michael. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The U.S. death toll from Hurricane Michael rose to 16 on Friday, law enforcement officials said, as rescue crews began searching hardest-hit communities in the Florida Panhandle rendered nearly inaccessible by storm damage.

The number of fatalities was expected to rise further as no deaths have been reported from oceanfront communities, such as Mexico Beach, Port St. Joe and Panama City, that bore the brunt of the storm's wrath. Rescuers have so far been unable to conduct thorough searches there.

"I think you're going to see it climb," Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said of the death count. "We still haven't gotten into some of the hardest-hit areas."

FEMA crews have been using bulldozers and other heavy equipment to push a path through debris to allow rescuers to probe the rubble with sniffer dogs as drone aircraft and Blackhawk helicopters searched from above.

Authorities said the storm victims include a Virginia firefighter killed when a tractor-trailer slammed into his fire truck during heavy storm conditions, and an 11-year-old Georgia girl who died when Michael's winds picked up a carport and dropped it through the roof of her grandparents' home.

A Winston-Salem firefighter walks toward an apartment building which was struck by a toppled tree on Thursday in North Carolina. (Allison Lee Isley/The Winston-Salem Journal via AP)

Michael struck Florida's northwest coast with particular force, with top sustained winds of 250 km/h, pushing a wall of seawater inland and causing widespread flooding.

The storm tore entire neighbourhoods apart in Mexico Beach, Fla. Rescuers and residents were struggling to get into the town to assess the damage and search for the hundreds of people believed to have stayed behind.

Emergency officials in Florida said they have received thousands of calls asking about missing people. But with cellphone service out across vast swaths of the Florida Panhandle, they said it is possible that some of those unaccounted for are safe and just haven't been able to contact friends or family to let them know.

Gov. Rick Scott said state officials still "do not know enough" about the fate of those who stayed behind in the region.

"We are not completely done. We are still getting down there," Scott said.

President Donald Trump said Friday he would visit Florida and Georgia next week to asses the storm damage.

'Only idiots like us stuck around'

Linda Marquardt rode out Hurricane Michael with her husband at their home in Mexico Beach. When their house filled with surging ocean water, they fled upstairs. Now their home is full of mud and everywhere they look there's utter devastation in their Florida Panhandle community: fishing boats tossed like toys, roofs lifted off of buildings and pine trees snapped like matchsticks in the roaring winds.

"All of my furniture was floating," said Marquardt, 67. "'A river just started coming down the road. It was awful, and now there's just nothing left."

People stand on a high bridge to get cellphone service on Friday in Port St. Joe, Fla. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

U.S. 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 FEMA used dogs, drones and GPS in the search.

"We prepare for the worst and hope for the best. This is obviously the worst," said Stephanie Palmer, a FEMA firefighter and rescuer from Coral Springs, Fla.

Watch aerial footage of damage caused in Florida by Hurricane Michael:

Much of downtown Port St. Joe, 19 kilometres 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 the town of 3,500 people.

Jordon Tood, 31, a charter boat captain in Port St. Joe, said: "There were mandatory evacuation orders, but only idiots like us stuck around."

"This was my sixth [hurricane], so I thought I was prepared," he said.

Over 1.5M homes, businesses without power

The commander of Tyndall Air Force Base said the "base took a beating" and will require "extensive cleanup and repairs." Videos of the damaged base show roofs ripped off hangars and a fighter jet on display toppled onto the ground.

Col. Brian Laidlaw told the 3,600 airmen stationed at the base just east of Panama City that he won't ask them or their families to return until their safety is guaranteed.

The interior of a Family Dollar Store that had the storefront ripped off is seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Millville, Fla. The storm tore entire neighbourhoods apart, reducing homes and businesses to piles of wood. (Emily Kask/AFP/Getty Images)

More than 1.5 million homes and businesses on the U.S. East Coast were still without power on Friday as a result of the storm. Southern Co's Gulf Power unit said it could take weeks to restore power in the hardest hit parts of Florida.

All told, Michael caused around 2.5 million outages since making landfall.

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 U.S. Agriculture Department, said Michael severely damaged cotton, timber, pecan and peanut crops, causing estimated liabilities as high as $1.9 billion US and affecting up to 1.5 million crop hectares.

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

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press