Hurricane Michael Death Toll Expected To Rise

Rescue crews have continued to work their way through heaps of rubble in the Florida Panhandle towns hit the hardest by Hurricane Michael, looking for people trapped or killed by a storm blamed for at least 12 deaths.

The concern was for people who ignored evacuation orders ahead of the storm -- which grew with surprising speed from a tropical storm into an extremely powerful hurricane in less than two days -- and who stayed put in communities that were demolished by Michael's assault on Wednesday.

"I think you're going to see it climb," Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said of the death count at a news conference.

"We still haven't gotten into some of the hardest-hit areas."

Emergency workers survey damage at the western edge of town in Mexico Beach. Image: AP

FEMA crews have used heavy equipment, sniffer dogs, drone aircraft and global positioning satellites in their search.

Michael charged ashore near the small Florida Panhandle town of Mexico Beach as one of the most powerful storms in US history, with winds of up to 250 kilometres per hour). It pushed a wall of seawater inland, causing widespread flooding.

Many houses in Mexico Beach were reduced to naked concrete foundations or piles of rubble. The storm, a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, tore apart entire neighbourhoods in the Panhandle.

READ MORE: The Devastation Of Hurricane Michael In Pictures

Florida Senator Bill Nelson went to Panama City, up the coast from Mexico Beach, and was stunned by what he saw.

"Pine forests were no longer -- they were all sticks that were broken in two," Nelson, a Democrat, told Fox News.

"Mexico Beach, there's no barrier island out there to protect it so it got the full force of the Category 4 wind and that wall of water."

Although weaker as it pushed over the southeastern US, the storm carried high winds and delivered drenching rains to Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia.

It killed at least 12 people in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, officials said.

The coastal township of Mexico Beach. Image: AP

In Virginia, the remnants of the hurricane swept away four people in floodwaters. A firefighter also was killed when hit by a truck as he was trying to help an accident victim, the Washington Post reported.

About 1.5 million homes and businesses were without power from Florida to Virginia early on Friday, according to utility companies.

It could be weeks before power is restored to the most damaged parts of Florida.

Long urged communities such as Mexico Beach, where many homes were obliterated by 12 to 14 feet (3.7-4.3 meters) of storm surge, to rebuild to withstand future storms.

"It's OK if you want to live on the coast or on top of a mountain that sees wildfires or whatever but you have to build to a higher standard," he said. "If we're going to rebuild, do it right."

By Friday morning, the remnants of Michael had moved into the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Norfolk, Virginia, but still could bring up to 13 cm of rain to parts of New England, the National Hurricane Centre said.