Florida Politics

Hurricane Michael leaves friends, relatives searching for thousands of people

On Day 2 after Hurricane Michael made landfall, search and rescue was still under way, state emergency officials said Friday — as more emphasis was beginning to shift to the “search.”

Thousands of people had been informally reported missing to local authorities, the Red Cross and the state, as people looked for their friends and relatives. The Florida Panhandle is largely populated by small towns, spread out across dense, forested areas, which only worsened post-disaster communications problems when cellphone towers and internet services went out. Locating people was a top priority for emergency crews on Friday.

Officials said they similarly received inquiries about thousands of people who were missing in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma last year as crews fanned out across the Keys to reduce that number.

However, Alan Harris, Seminole County Emergency Management Director, told the state Emergency Operations Center during its 8:30 a.m. briefing that so far, the state was standing down from setting up a temporary mortuary, a sign that mass casualties, at least thus far, had not been found.

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“We were going to establish a mortuary location. Thank God we’re not seeing that as a critical need,” Harris said. “That’s actually some great news. We hope that news continues.”

But Gov. Rick Scott, speaking to reporters outside, was cautious not to be too optimistic yet.

“I don’t think we know enough,” he said. “We’ve got to finish search and rescue. The other thing on top of that, a lot of people get hurt afterwards. That’s why we talk about: Make sure you know how to use a generator. Don’t put it inside your house. Be careful with all the chain saws … and don’t touch downed power lines.”

Nationwide, the death toll for Hurricane Michael stood at 17 people. In Florida, the official total stood at seven, with an uncomfirmed eighth — but that only accounts for two counties, neither of which include Panama City or Mexico Beach.

Four people died in Gadsden County, according to local officials there. On Friday, three more deaths were confirmed in Jackson County by the sheriff, and there was a suspected fourth. The medical examiner in Bay County, the home to Panama City and Mexico Beach, still did not have a count of the dead there, according to the New York Times.

The financial toll will be calculated in the days to come, although early estimates by Moody’s Analytics said the storm’s cost could amount to between $12 billion and $15 billion after Michael made landfall Wednesday near Mexico Beach and roared across Florida, southeastern Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia.

“Unlike Florence, which unleashed widespread flooding in the Carolinas, Michael’s historic winds were its primary weapon,” analysts Ryan Sweet and Adam Kamins said in a statement.

The devastation was worst in Bay County, around Panama City and Mexico Beach, they said, largely sparing Tallahassee.

As of Friday afternoon, state emergency officials said first responders like firefighters, paramedics and nurses were searching the affected area in the Panhandle. During this “primary” search, officials typically knock on doors. About 25,000 structures had been searched by late Friday.

A more intensive “secondary” search was not yet underway Friday, which will include sifting through rubble to find additional people who are injured or have died. Once begun, that search will take days, if not weeks, officials said.

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They expect the number of missing to go down most quickly when power and communications are restored, allowing people to more easily locate their loved ones.

Food and water distribution intensified Friday, as pallets of provisions made their way to the coast on the roads that had been cleared of debris. Helicopters were needed to deliver supplies to most remote areas like St. George Island, Apalachicola and Port St. Joe, state officials said.

There were no longer any “widespread” fuel outages, according to Scott. He was scheduled to visit both Mexico Beach and Marianna with Florida National Guard troops on Friday, in addition to getting an aerial view of the damage to Gulf and Jackson counties.

While some in the lesser-hit areas, like Tallahassee, started to get their power back on Thursday, just under than 330,000 people remained without power in the Panhandle by Friday evening.

“The bottom line is there is a significant amount of damage in many of those areas,” said Danny Kilcollins, infrastructure branch director for the state’s emergency center. “These numbers are probably not going to go down very quickly at this point.”

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Hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the Panhandle continued to evacuate their patients, whose needs have become a focal point since 12 people died in Broward County’s Hollywood Hills nursing home during Hurricane Irma when the lack of air conditioning caused deadly temperatures inside.

But because Hurricane Michael hit in October, and temperatures in North Florida have dropped in recent days with overnight lows in the 50s, Scott said he now wanted to make sure patients and nursing home residents were staying warm.

“We have shelters open [and] as long as there’s a need they’re going to stay open,” he said. “We’ll make sure we provide whatever is necessary. If it’s to keep people warm, we’ll keep people warm.”

Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee. Elizabeth Koh ekoh@miamiherald.com

Access to Chattahoochee

As roads finally reopened Friday heading west, residents from Chattahoochee gathered outside Florida State Hospital to pick up pallets of water from trucks that had managed to pass the winding, heavily forested roads into the town that morning.

Dozens of people shouldered 24-packs of water into their cars, delivered by the semi-trucks parked in front of the state mental hospital in the unexpectedly cool air.

A few lined up around a Salvation Army Emergency Disaster truck to wait for food supplies they were told would also be handed out in a few hours.

Michael “is the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Calvin Dawkins, 53, a pharmacy assistant at Florida State Hospital, as he stepped outside to pick up some water for the church where he serves as a deacon. The hospital largely made it safely through the storm, he said, thanks to a generator inside. “It’s like a city in a city.”

Debra Gilcrease, 57, a behavioral therapist at the facility, said the wind had broken some windows and some cars were crushed by falling trees.

Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee didn’t sustain much damage in Hurricane Michael. Workers brought supplies and were clearing debris on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018. Elizabeth Koh ekoh@miamiherald.com

Debris-removal workers were operating heavy machinery outside, as facility security strung yellow “restricted” tape around the space where they were working.

Gilcrease said those at the hospital had been instructed, after a water main break, that the water might have been contaminated and that they should boil it first if they wanted to drink it. “They had to bring a lot of water in,” she said.

Pamela Bates, 51, one of Dawkins’ pharmacy co-workers, said she was also supposed to staff the facility after the storm but had been preoccupied after trees fell on her house during the hurricane. “My house is unlivable. There is a tree in every room.”

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Herald/Times staff writers Elizabeth Koh and Jenny Staletovich contributed to this report from Chattahoochee.

Correction: Due to incorrect information provided to the Miami Herald, a previous version of this story mischaracterized the completion status of the “primary” search for missing people. It has been updated to reflect the correct information.

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