By Rod Nickel
MEXICO BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) - The U.S. death toll from Hurricane Michael rose to 16 on Friday, law enforcement officials said, as rescue crews began searching hardest-hit communities in the Florida panhandle rendered nearly inaccessible by storm damage.
Three additional deaths were reported in Marianna, in Jackson County, Florida, Sheriff Lou Roberts told a news conference.
The number of fatalities was expected to rise further as no deaths have been reported from oceanfront communities, such as Mexico Beach, Port St. Joe and Panama City, that bore the brunt of the storm's wrath. "Rescuers have so far been unable to conduct thorough searches there.
"I think you're going to see it climb," Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said of the death count. "We still haven't gotten into some of the hardest-hit areas."
FEMA crews have been using bulldozers and other heavy equipment to push a path through debris to allow rescuers to probe the rubble with sniffer dogs as drone aircraft and Blackhawk helicopters searched from above.
(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Mexico Beach, Florida; Additional reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in Port St. Joe, Florida, Gina Cherelus and Scott DiSavino in New York, Gary McWilliams and Liz Hampton in Houston, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee and Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb and Bill Trott; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Bill Tarrant and Sandra Maler)