MEXICO BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Rescuers intensified efforts Saturday to find survivors who might be trapped amid the ruins of a small Florida Panhandle community nearly obliterated by Hurricane Michael, where one body has already been recovered.
Crews with dogs went door-to-door in Mexico Beach and pushed aside debris to get inside badly damage structures in a second wave of searches after what they said was an initial, “hasty” search of the area.
Authorities say there is little doubt the death toll will rise from the storm, which made landfall Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane with 155 mph winds (249 kph) and heavy storm surge. The tally of lives lost across the South stood at 14, including the victim found in the rubble of Mexico Beach, where about 1,000 people live.
“Everything is time consuming,” said Capt. Ignatius Carroll, of the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue task force. “You don’t want to put a rush on a thorough rescue.”
More roads were passable along the storm-ravaged coast as crews cleared downed trees and power lines, but traffic lights remained out and lines at the few gas stations that were open were five to six cars deep.
Schools will stay closed indefinitely, a hospital halted operations and sent 200 patients to hospitals elsewhere in Florida and in Alabama, and some residents were packing up and getting as far away as they could.
Jeff and Katrina Pearsey, with a ruined rental home in the Panama City area and no indication of when they could again earn a living, said they were heading to Bangor, Maine, where Katrina once worked as a nurse. Several trees came down on their property, including one that smashed through the roof.
“We’re getting our stuff and we’re going,” said Jeff Pearsey, 48. “We’re probably done with Panama City.”
Miami Fire Chief Joseph Zahralban, the leader of a search-and-rescue unit combing through the wreckage of Mexico Beach, said searchers were trying to determine if the person found dead in the community had been alone or was part of a family.
Michael was one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever make landfall in the U.S. While most residents fled ahead of the storm’s arrival, others stayed to face the hurricane. Some barely escaped with their lives as homes were pushed off their foundations and whole neighborhoods became submerged.
Hector Morales, a 57-year-old restaurant cook, never even thought of evacuating. His mobile home wasn’t on the beach but when it suddenly began floating during the hurricane, he jumped out and swam to a fishing boat and clambered aboard.
“I lost everything,” Morales said. “But I made it.”
How many others were not so fortunate was still not clear. By one count, state officials said, 285 people in Mexico Beach defied mandatory evacuation orders and stayed behind. It’s unclear how many people stayed behind in nearby communities.
One who did, Albert Blackwell, was preparing on Saturday to cover holes in the roof of his apartment and take a chain saw to trees that fell and broke his windows just outside Panama City.
“I’m the idiot that rode it out here in this place,” said Blackwell, 65, sweat dripping from his face. He figured rebuilding will take months, but he doesn’t plan to leave.
“The immediate day after (landfall), I stopped looters from coming in here,” he said. “We’re staying to protect our place.”
Emergency officials said they’ve received thousands of calls asking about missing people, but with cellphone service out across a wide area, they found it impossible to know who among those unaccounted for were safe but just unable to dial out to friends or family.
Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long said he expected the death toll to rise.
“We still haven’t gotten into the hardest-hit areas,” he said, adding with frustration: “Very few people live to tell what it’s like to experience storm surge, and unfortunately in this country we seem to not learn the lesson.”
Authorities have set up distribution centers to dole out food and water to victims, who just were coming to grips with the brutal realities of their situation. They’ve also set up a triage tent to treat residents stepping on nails and cutting themselves on debris.
The Pearseys were in Orlando, on vacation when they heard about the storm and were unable to return before Friday. Rain got into the modest home, just north of Lynn Haven in the Panama City area, and it had started to smell of mold.
Katrina Pearsey, 46, said she wasn’t willing to wait to see if the government would help them out.
“FEMA don’t get in no hurry to get anything done. We’ll starve to death by then,” she said.
President Donald Trump announced plans to visit Florida and hard-hit Georgia early next week but didn’t say what day he would arrive.
“We are with you!” he tweeted.
On the Panhandle, Tyndall Air Force Base “took a beating,” so much so that Col. Brian Laidlaw told the 3,600 men and women stationed on the base not to come back. Many of the 600 families who live there had followed orders to pack what they could in a single suitcase as they were evacuated before the storm. The hurricane’s eyewall passed directly overhead, severely damaging nearly every building and leaving many a complete loss. The elementary school, the flight line, the marina and the runways were devastated.
“I will not recall you and your families until we can guarantee your safety. At this time I can’t tell you how long that will take, but I’m on it,” Laidlaw wrote.
Meanwhile, Carroll said, authorities were setting up a triage tent to treat Mexico Beach residents stepping on nails and cutting themselves on debris.
“Now we’re getting residents who are still here who are suffering injuries,” Carroll said. “These minor cuts and bruises can turn into something more serious” if left untreated.
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