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'So much is just gone': Mexico Beach residents return to devastated homes as Hurricane Michael death toll climbs

In Mexico Beach, Florida, Hurricane Michael tossed cars into the canal, snapped trees in half and carved massive craters into U.S. Route 98.
Image: Recovery Efforts Continue In Hurricane-Ravaged Florida Panhandle
Members of the Maryland Task Force urban search and rescue team search for victims of Hurricane Michael on Tuesday in Mexico Beach, Florida.Scott Olson / Getty Images

MEXICO BEACH, Fla. — For 12 hours a day, cadaver dogs have been roaming piles of rubble in this town hard-hit by Hurricane Michael. They leap across the remnants of staircases and fragments of Mexico Beach's boardwalk beneath the constant sun, with hardhat-wearing handlers following close behind.

When the dogs detect the presence of a body, they stop and bark. A second dog is brought in for confirmation, and then the search-and-rescue crews begin to dig.

A rescue team dog searches for victims Tuesday in Mexico Beach. Scott Olson / Getty Images

On Tuesday, cadaver dogs found two bodies in the rubble of Mexico Beach, said Ignatius Carroll, captain of a FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Force based in Miami. Carroll did not say where exactly the bodies were found, because they could have been carried by the wave of water that deluged the Florida Panhandle last Wednesday, and he did not want to cause unnecessary panic for the many families still awaiting word from missing relatives.

"We’re not looking at rescues so much anymore — it’s really more search at this point,” FEMA spokesman Mike Yeun said.

The grim discoveries in Mexico Beach came as the storm’s confirmed death toll in Florida rose to at least 16, with 12 of those in Bay County, where Mexico Beach, Panama City and Panama City Beach are, the state division of emergency management said Tuesday.

The number of deaths in Florida could be as high as 19: Three deaths previously announced by the Jackson County sheriff were not included in the state division’s numbers released Tuesday. Overall at least 29 deaths across four states have been blamed on Michael, according to an NBC News tally based on official counts.

Tanya Castro was in her second week as Mexico Beach's city administrator when the storm hit. Now she's scrambling to bring in temporary bathrooms, restore cellphone service and coordinate with state and federal officials on what will be a massive recovery effort for the town of about 1,190 people.

“You saw it when you drove in — so much is just gone," Castro said.

A FEMA officer from the Indiana Task Force walks over debris near command central.Mariana Keller / NBC News

Michael's power is visible in the devastation the storm left behind: cars tossed into the town's canal, trees snapped in half and massive craters carved into U.S. Route 98.

The hurricane's winds lifted Mark and Kathie Drake's beach house off its stilts and blew it 160 yards across the main road, where it landed on a grassy area next to a parking lot. It wasn't the first time the house had moved — it was once Kathie's family farmhouse, built about 100 miles away in Havana, Florida, more than three decades ago. The couple moved the home to Mexico Beach eight years ago.

Mark and Kathie Drake's home in Mexico Beach, Florida, was moved 160 yards across a street by Hurricane Michael.Phil McCausland / NBC News

They now hope to move it one more time, back across the street where it belongs — and where the porch remains. They've spray-painted “Save Do NOT Demolish” across the blue siding, to ensure that work crews moving through the town, tearing down damaged homes, won't take theirs.

"It’s so random," Mark Drake, 55, said. "My neighbors don’t get any damage and then there are our friends who don’t have anything left. Then my house somehow came across the street. I mean, that’s a view I never thought I’d see out this window."

Mark and Kathie DrakePhil McCausland / NBC News

The Drakes are staying in Tallahassee until they have a home to return to, but some in Mexico Beach are living in their storm-damaged houses without water or electricity. The town is missing plenty, some residents said, but it still has a beach.

On Monday evening, Tom Dame, 68, tucked a lawn chair under his arm and walked out of his home, which was hit by storm surge and had its roof stripped in the hurricane. Carrying a plastic bag with two Bud Lights, he headed for the ocean.

“I found my chair, and I’m going to the beach to watch the sunset,” he said, knowing he only had about an hour before the National Guard would enforce the 7 p.m. curfew.

Dame had bought the house a year ago, with plans to retire there, and he's been filling it with new furnishings. He recently sold his other home in Arkansas, so he has nowhere else to go.

"It's been rough," Dame said, his voice quivering. "Don’t forget about the need that’s here. People just need so much help.”

Phil Helsel contributed.