PANAMA CITY, Fla. (AP) — Residents of hurricane-ravaged communities in Florida’s Panhandle turned to volunteers and each other for help Monday, the fifth day without cell service, electricity or, in many cases, shelter.
Trevor Lewis, a member of a six-person search-and-rescue unit, said he watched people “cry out in joy” when his team let them use its cellphones to contact loved ones for the first time in days.”The amount of stress that people are in, not just from losing everything, but not having phones, power, food, water, puts a huge toll on the emotional factor of people stuck in these houses,” Lewis said. “And it really ups the ante a whole lot more.”
As President Donald Trump visited the devastated zone, the death toll from Michael’s march from Florida to Virginia stood at 17, with just one confirmed death so far in Mexico Beach, a town of about 1,000 people that was nearly wiped off the map in a direct hit from the hurricane and its 155 mph (250 kph) winds last week.
City Clerk Adrian Welle told local media that 46 people in Mexico Beach were still unaccounted for. That number had previously been 285, but officials think many left right before the storm hit.
Across the stricken Panhandle, storm victims confronted shortages of gas and other supplies.
Limon Wilson sat for an hour with his car parked at a gas pump with no fuel outside hard-hit Panama City. His home in the city was badly damaged, with a tree through the roof. He was trying to find shelter for his four children and other family members.
“We’ve been trying to rough it at home for the last few days. But it’s hot,” Wilson said as his 8-month-old daughter sat on his knee.
Trump flew above the Panhandle to see the damage and immediately praised Republican Gov. Rick Scott for an “incredible” response to the disaster. “You’re a great governor,” Trump said.
Scott, who is running for the U.S. Senate, returned the praise, saying, “Every time I’ve called, he’s come through.”
As of Sunday, more than 190,000 homes and businesses in Florida were without electricity, along with about 120,000 in Georgia.
It was unclear how many people were missing. Because of widespread cellphone outages, authorities said some people who are safe may not be able to let friends or loved ones know.
A Houston-based organization called CrowdSource that takes calls from worried family members and sends the details to rescue crews on the ground said it has helped find nearly 1,500 people since Michael struck. But co-founder Matthew Marchetti said it is still looking for more than 1,350 in the hurricane-affected area.
Lewis was part of a team that spent days doing more than 100 wellness checks on people reported missing by family members in the devastated city of Lynn Haven.
“Just the desperation in the family members’ voices that hadn’t contacted their loved one for a few days was bad,” he said. “Then we get on scene and find their family members and they have no food, no water, no power.”
Lewis’ crew, the Salty Water Rescue Services, which is made up local law enforcement and fire rescue officials from Cocoa Beach, found a woman in her 80s who had no food and just a few bottles of water left. They evacuated her and put her on the phone with a family member.
They also evacuated 50 to 100 people in a Lynn Haven neighborhood after finding a gas leak while searching for victims.
Florida officials have begun criticizing the time it is taking Verizon to restore cellphone service on the Panhandle. Verizon responded on Twitter that it was working “urgently.”
In the town of Marianna, Jill Braxton stopped with a pickup truck loaded with hay, saying many people in rural areas nearby had trapped animals and needed supplies for their livestock.
“We’re just trying to help some other people who may not be able to get out of their driveways for a couple of days,” Braxton said. “There was a girl that had trapped horses, horses that were down, and horses that really needed vet care that could not get there. There’s been animals killed. People lost their cows.”
Some victims stranded by the storm managed to summon relief by using logs to spell out “HELP” on the ground, officials in Bay County, which includes Mexico Beach, said in a Facebook post. Official said someone from another county was using an aerial mapping app, noticed the distress message and contacted authorities.
No details were released on who was stranded and what sort of help was needed.