A dock is seen underwater a day before Hurricane Michael comes ashore in Carrabelle, Florida, the US, on October 9 2018. Picture: REUTERS/CARLO ALLEGRI
A dock is seen underwater a day before Hurricane Michael comes ashore in Carrabelle, Florida, the US, on October 9 2018. Picture: REUTERS/CARLO ALLEGRI

Three days after the devastating passage of Hurricane Michael, search teams in Florida pressed their hunt for victims into hard-to-reach areas on Saturday, as the death toll rose to 17 and officials scrambled to deliver aid to those who lost everything.

The mammoth storm, which made landfall as a category 4 storm on Wednesday, claimed lives in four states, but the Sunshine State suffered the worst damage by far.

Large parts of the state’s panhandle were pulverised by the strong winds and rain, and eight storm-related deaths have been reported in Florida so far.

"Mexico Beach is devastated," Governor Rick Scott said of the town hardest hit by the hurricane, the most powerful to hit the US in decades.

"It’s like a war zone," he said while touring the town of 1,000 people on the Gulf of Mexico.

Rescue teams with sniffer dogs were searching for possible victims buried under the rubble in the debris-strewn community. US media have reported one death in the town — the body of an elderly man was found hundreds of metres from his home. Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, warned that the death toll could yet rise.

"I hope we don’t see it climb dramatically but I have reasons to believe we still haven’t got into some of the hardest-hit areas," he said.

Government and private relief centres were opening up to provide badly needed food, water and other aid to people whose lives had been upended by the monster storm.

As sombre residents began making it back to their homes, officials said it could take 10 days to compile a final damage estimate. In Mexico Beach, dozens of structures — homes, shops and restaurants — were lifted off their foundations by storm surge and winds of 250km/h.

"Very few people live to tell what it’s like to experience storm surge," Long said. "Storm surge causes the most amount of loss of life."

The devastation wrought by Michael has sparked debate on whether an era of warming oceans and more severe storms might require tougher building standards in coastal areas.

AFP