Hurricane Michael: 17 dead, Coastal Florida cities damaged beyond recognition

Famous for staying open during natural disasters Waffle House closes 21 restaurants

Waffle Houses stay open 24/7- but 18 restaurants in Florida have closed because of how severe Hurricane Michael

Authorities have set up distribution centres to dole out food and water to victims. "People will just pack up and leave".

The images, released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, show severe damage in Mexico Beach, Florida, which took an nearly direct hit from one of the most powerful storms to make landfall on the USA mainland.

With winds of 155mph and a storm surge of nearly 14 feet, the hurricane has left a trail of destruction more than 100 miles wide at its immediate point of impact and stretching in excess of 200 miles inland into southern Georgia, where it finally subsided into a rain-heavy tropical storm. Two died in North Carolina when a auto smashed into a fallen tree.

The big tourist attraction of Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City Beach was among the casualties, with extensive wind damage to some of its buildings, but all its animals were reported to be safe thanks to a skeleton staff who stayed behind to look after the six-acre facility.

Blocks and blocks of homes were demolished, reduced to splintered lumber or mere concrete slabs by the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental almost 50 years.

Florida's glittering Emerald Coast will be missing much of its lustre for the next few months in the wake of devastating Hurricane Michael, which scored a massive direct hit on the north-west part of the Sunshine State on Wednesday.

Under a perfectly clear blue sky, Florida families emerged tentatively from darkened shelters and hotels to an unfamiliar and perilous landscape of shattered homes and shopping centers, beeping security alarms, wailing sirens and hovering helicopters.

In the case of Michael, the storm appeared to be heading into a hurricane-snuffing environment of strong wind sheer, the differences in wind speed and direction that can disrupt a hurricane's rotating, cone-shaped structure. "I don't know what I'm going to do", said Williams. Downed power lines and twisted street signs lay all around.

Roofs had been lifted from houses while others were split open by fallen trees.

Hundreds of cars had broken windows.

The hurricane also damaged hospitals and nursing homes in the Panama City area, and officials worked to evacuate hundreds of patients. Numerous 600 families who live there had followed orders to pack what they could in a single suitcase as they were evacuated ahead of the storm.

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More than 1,700 search and rescue workers were deployed, including seven swift-water rescue teams and almost 300 ambulances, Florida Governor Rick Scott's office said.

The storm may cost insurance companies about $8 billion, according to risk modeler Karen Clark & Co.

People in the crosshairs had to make last-minute preparations for the monstrous storm's arrival - and for how to cope in its aftermath.

And Michael also was deadly, both in Florida and beyond.

Zahralban spoke as his team - which included a dog - was winding down its two-day search of Mexico Beach, the town of about 1,000 people that was almost wiped off the map when Michael blew ashore there Wednesday with devastating 155 miles per hour (249 kph) winds. Entire roofs were torn away in the town of about 1,000 people, now a scene of utter devastation. A driver in North Carolina was killed when a tree fell on his vehicle.

Search-and-rescue teams found at least one body in Mexico Beach, the ground-zero town almost obliterated by Hurricane Michael, an official said Friday as the scale of the storm's fury became ever clearer. It forced more than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast to evacuate as it gained strength quickly while crossing the eastern Gulf of Mexico toward north Florida. But emergency authorities lamented that many ignored the warnings.

TV station WLOS reported more than 40 roads had to be closed in the county due to flooding and 18 people had to be rescued, including one involving an SUV whose driver "found her vehicle floating" when she tried driving through flood waters.

Other communities along the Forgotten Coast include Port St. Joe, Apalachicola, Eastpoint, St. Marks and St. George Island, all places where folks from nearby Tallahassee, Georgia and Alabama like to escape for a quiet weekend.

State officials said 285 people in Mexico Beach had defied a mandatory evacuation order ahead of Michael.

National Guard troops made their way into the ground-zero town and found 20 survivors initially Wednesday night, and more rescue crews are arriving.

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