State Politics

Roads reopening, cell service slowly returning as Hurricane Michael recovery begins

“We just knew, all of us were dead,” Mexico Beach resident says

‘It was life or death’: Resident of Mexico Beach, a small Florida town devastated by Hurricane Michael, talks about how he stayed to face storm’s fury.
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‘It was life or death’: Resident of Mexico Beach, a small Florida town devastated by Hurricane Michael, talks about how he stayed to face storm’s fury.

After a brutal battering this week from Hurricane Michael, rescuers and supplies continued to flow into the most impacted regions as the Panhandle began to clear the first crucial 72 hours since the storm made landfall.

State officials said Saturday morning that after an initial “rapid” search, search and rescue crews were working on a more thorough, “primary” push to seek out the injured or dead in Hurricane Michael’s wreckage, involving finding and rescuing those trapped in collapsed buildings.

Officials said they had rescued nearly 200 people late Friday.

Local and state authorities had also collectively confirmed at least eight deaths related to Michael by Saturday: three in Jackson County, four in Gadsden County and one in Clay County. But that count does not include Panama City and Mexico Beach, which were hardest hit.

In rural regions like heavily forested Jackson and Gadsden counties, trucks also continued to bring in supplies by ground after roads began to be cleared Thursday. Several roads west had reopened before the weekend, including Interstate 10 and Highway 90, and state emergency officials said Saturday morning they expected Highway 20 would also reopen soon as conditions around it receded to minor flooding.

A clearer picture emerged of the destruction left by Hurricane Michael on Friday, as rescue workers converged in flattened cities and residents returned nervously to their neighborhoods.

And as trucks began to cart in supplies on rural, debris-clogged roads to places like Marianna and Chattahoochee, state officials said they were also trying to bolster communication across the Panhandle by helping improve cellular service.

Cell signal coverage had risen to 80 percent across the region by Saturday morning, though Bay County — which was hardest hit — still had signal coverage around only 30 percent. Thousands of people had been informally reported missing to local authorities, the Red Cross and the state, but officials said they hoped those numbers would decline somewhat as cell service improved and people could contact loved ones.

Officials were also able to, for the first time since the storm, coordinate a call “with all of our communities at the same time” Saturday to discuss recovery and response.

Nearly 248,000 remained without power as of Saturday evening, though places less impacted by the storm like Tallahassee reported that more than two-thirds of customers were now able to turn the lights back on.

Four more counties were also added to parts of the state’s disaster declaration overnight, which President Donald Trump had approved in 14 counties after Michael’s landfall Thursday. The declaration, which enables local communities to access federal funding and assistance across the Panhandle and Big Bend, now authorizes nine of those counties, up from five, to specifically access individual assistance, according to the state. The counties — Bay, Gulf, Franklin, Wakulla, Taylor, Calhoun, Liberty, Gadsden and Jackson — include the coastal region hardest hit by Michael and inland counties that were pummeled when it moved north into Georgia.

Gov. Rick Scott spent Saturday participating in an air drop of supplies and food to Eastpoint in Franklin County, and surveying damage on the ground there, as well as in Holmes, Washington and Gadsden counties.

(Editor’s note: This story has been updated. Due to incorrect information provided to the Miami Herald, an earlier version of this story mischaracterized the status of the initial — then more thorough — searches looking for missing people in the area affected by Hurricane Michael. As of Sunday, the “rapid” phase was complete and the second “primary” phase about 65 percent completed. A third, final “secondary” search effort is also in its early stages.)