(Updates with details)
By Devika Krishna Kumar
PORT ST. JOE, Fla., Oct 12 (Reuters) - Rescuers searched for survivors on Friday after one of the most powerful hurricanes in U.S. history slammed into the Florida Panhandle and killed at least seven people.
Hurricane Michael struck Florida’s northwest coast near the small town of Mexico Beach on Wednesday afternoon with top sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (250 kph), pushing a wall of seawater inland and causing widespread flooding.
At least seven people were killed in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, according to state officials.
By early Friday morning, the fast-moving storm was about 65 miles (105 km) northeast of Norfolk, Virginia, with top sustained winds of 60 mph (95 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. It was threatening to bring flash floods and wind damage to parts of North Carolina and the southern Mid-Atlantic still recovering from last month’s Hurricane Florence.
The storm, which came ashore as a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, tore entire neighborhoods 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.
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 the Federal Emergency Management Agency (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, Florida.
Many of the injured in Florida were taken to hard-hit Panama City, 20 miles (32 km) northwest of Mexico Beach.
Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center treated 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, according to a spokesman for the hospital’s owner, HCA Healthcare Inc.
Much of downtown Port St. Joe, 12 miles (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.
In Apalachicola, about 30 miles (48 km) east of where the storm made landfall, a little less than half of the 2,200 people stayed and rode out the storm, residents said.
“I’ve never seen anything like this craziness,” said Tamara’s Cafe owner Danny Itzkovitz, 54, as he was busy grilling burgers. “We’ve had storms before - in ‘05 we had four or five in a row. I didn’t even take the boards off my window. But, holy smokes, this one kicked our butt.”
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.
Emergency services carried out dozens of rescues of people caught in swiftly moving floodwaters in North Carolina on Thursday.
Almost 1.1 million homes and businesses were without power from Florida to Virginia early on Friday, according to utility companies.
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 and affecting up to 3.7 million crop acres (1.5 million 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 percent and natural gas output by nearly a third as offshore platforms were evacuated.
Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in Port St. Joe, Fla. Additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Panama City, Fla., Gina Cherelus and Scott DiSavino in New York, Gary McWilliams and Liz Hampton in Houston, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, Humeyra Pamuk in Washington, Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee and Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles Writing by Andrew Hay and Dan Whitcomb Editing by Bill Tarrant, Peter Cooney, Paul Tait and Peter Graff