MEXICO BEACH, Fla.—The hunt for missing people in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael on Oct. 14 was turning into a search for the dead, as hope of finding more people alive fades in the Florida Panhandle, U.S. officials said.
“We’re going into recovery mode, unfortunately,” said Fire Chief Alex Baird of Panama City, one of the coastal Florida communities clobbered by the hurricane that made landfall Oct. 10 as a Category 4 storm, packing more than 140 mph winds and deadly storm surges.
“At sunrise, we’ll start again on our search,” Baird said. “We hope that we’ll find more (survivors), but it’s more and more doubtful.”
President Donald Trump is expected to visit both Florida and Georgia early this week to inspect the damage, and the White House said late Oct. 13, the president was fully committed to helping state and local agencies with the recovery.
The death toll of the storm reached at least 18 late on Oct. 13 and is expected to rise in the U.S. Southeast as rescuers go door-to-door in coastal communities in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas.
Search and rescue volunteers have already located hundreds of people reported missing last week.
Crews heard cries for help and crowbarred into a mobile home crumpled by the storm in Panama City, freeing a mother and daughter, both diabetics who had been trapped in a closet without insulin for two days and were on the verge of diabetic shock, rescuers said on Oct. 13.
“We had another lady who was on her last tank of oxygen. No cell phone, no power, no nothing. There are people out here on dialysis, but there is no power,” said Taylor Fontenot, 29, a roofing contractor from Sugar Land, Texas, and founder of 50 Star SAR, a volunteer search and rescue organization.
“There’s people going through their neighbor’s (destroyed) houses … to try to find some jelly for the sandwiches for the kids,” said Russ Montgomery, a volunteer with Project Greenlight from San Antonio, Texas.
In door-to-door searches, teams comprised mostly of off-duty police officers and firefighters have found more than 520 of the 2,100 people reported missing since Michael crashed ashore near Mexico Beach, Florida, on Oct. 10 as one of the most powerful storms in U.S. history.
A lack of food and water is among the most pressing issues for people reeling from the storm, said one volunteer who had been working in the Panama City area.
Rescue teams, hampered by power and telephone outages, used cadaver dogs, drones and heavy equipment to hunt for people in the rubble.
Fontenot, who said he alerts authorities when he finds corpses, has a cadaver dog with his group.
“When we pulled into Mexico Beach, she was trying to jump out the window because she smelled so many bodies,” he said.
More than 1,700 search and rescue workers were deployed, including seven swift-water rescue teams and nearly 300 ambulances, Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office said.
Electricity and phone service were being slowly restored, but it could be weeks before power is restored to the most damaged areas.
In Callaway, Florida, an especially hard-hit town, volunteers barbecued hamburgers on Oct. 13 and handed out water.
“I’m homeless,” said nursing assistant Carla Covington, 45, who is caring for her mother and two children after their house was destroyed by falling trees.
She said it felt good to receive comfort, but was also hard.
“I’m used to helping people and not asking for help,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion.
Panama City port worker Josh Jackson, 29, had three cars damaged. The rented home he lived in with his girlfriend and son was wrecked, as were their possessions.
“I lost everything so I got to start over,” he said near a tent in a parking lot where a Geico insurance agent was taking claims. Jackson said he plans to move, but was concerned that delays processing his insurance claim might hold him up.
Michael ripped most of two walls out from the red-brick St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Panama City, but parishioners spent Oct. 13 handing out food, water, and clothes to others.
“Our whole city was hit. There has got be a way it can recover,” said Jo Ann Sutter, 73, a volunteer who was married in the church. “We will.”
Montgomery recalled passing a line of collapsed homes and seeing a woman sitting on a folding chair, smiling and waving even though her entire house had vanished.
“To have just that American fighting way to sit there and go, ‘You know what? I can’t do anything about it right now’… and have a big smile on her face because she’s in her home. Even though that home is not there.”
By Rod Nickel