MEXICO BEACH, Fla. – 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, tempers are flaring, and the electric utility is warning that power could be out for weeks.
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 following what they described as 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 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 long lines heightened tensions at one of the area’s few open gas stations.
“I want you to get back in your vehicle and stop!” one woman shouted at a man accosting her as she tried to squeeze her car between two idling vehicles at a Panama City service station running two fuel pumps on a generator.
“You’re an idiot!” the man shouted back.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has called up 4,000 members of the state’s National Guard to deal with the deadly storm, adding 500 more Saturday, and nearly 2,000 law-enforcement officials have been sent into the Panhandle.
Schools will stay closed indefinitely, a hospital halted operations and sent 200 patients to hospitals elsewhere in Florida and in Alabama, and more than 253,000 customers in the Panhandle remain without power.
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.”
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 doesn’t plan to leave; he wants to protect his home from looters.
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. Searchers were trying to determine if the person found dead in Mexico Beach had been alone or was part of a family.
Authorities have set up distribution centers to dole out food and water to victims. They’ve also set up a triage tent to treat residents stepping on nails and cutting themselves on debris.
President Donald Trump announced plans to visit Florida and hard-hit Georgia early next week but didn’t say what day he would arrive. On Saturday he approved federal disaster aid relief for four Alabama counties affected by the storm.
“We are with you!” he tweeted.
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