(Adds statement by head of FEMA, updates death toll)
By Devika Krishna Kumar
PORT ST. JOE, Fla., Oct 12 (Reuters) - 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 likely to rise.
At least 12 people were killed in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, officials said, after one of the most powerful hurricanes in U.S. history slammed into Florida's northwest coast.
"I expect the fatality count to climb today and tomorrow," Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), told CNN. "Hopefully it doesn't rise dramatically but it does remain a possibility."
Michael came ashore on Wednesday near the small Panhandle town of Mexico Beach with top sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (250 km per hour), pushing a wall of seawater inland and causing widespread flooding.
Long urged communities such as Mexico Beach, where many homes were obliterated by 12 to 14 feet (3.7 to 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."
Michael weakened as it charged over the southeastern United States, but still carried high winds and delivered drenching rains to Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, causing flooding. By early Friday morning it had moved into the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Norfolk, Virginia, the National Hurricane Center said.
Almost 1.1 million homes and businesses were without power from Florida to Virginia early on Friday, according to utility companies.
'PREPARE FOR THE WORST'
The storm, which came ashore as a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, tore entire neighborhoods in the Panhandle apart, reducing homes and businesses to piles of wood and siding, damaging roads and leaving scenes of devastation.
Rescuers from FEMA used dogs, drones and GPS in the search for survivors.
"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 people but the hospital evacuated 130 patients as it was dealing with its own hurricane effects. The hospital was 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. 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.
DAMAGE TO CROPS
As Michael pushed northeast, emergency services carried out dozens of rescues of people caught in swiftly moving floodwaters in North Carolina on Thursday.
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.
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.
(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 Frances Kerry)
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