MEXICO BEACH, Fla. – Residents of hard-hit Mexico Beach began returning home for the first time Wednesday since Hurricane Michael to see homes devastated by wind and water and pieces of their lives scattered across the Florida sand.
Nancy Register sobbed uncontrollably after finding no trace of the large camper where she’d lived with her husband Taylor. She was particularly distraught over the loss of a black-and-white photo of her mother, who died of cancer.
Husband Taylor Register found little but a stool and a keepsake rock that was given to him by a friend 40 years ago.
Just up the road, Kentucky residents Ron and Lanie Eden picked through the remains of the small beach house where they’ve stayed with their children each October for years.
Residents who rode out the storm at home have been in Mexico Beach since Michael hit, but authorities told others to stay away for a week after the Category 4 storm ravaged the beach town with 155 mph winds and a strong storm surge.
State emergency management officials said some 124,500 customers across the Panhandle were still without power Wednesday morning and 1,157 remained in shelters.
In Bay County, home to Mexico Beach and Panama City, 54 percent of customers remained without electricity. Inland, in Calhoun County, 98 percent of the customers didn’t have power Wednesday morning, according to the emergency management website. And in Jackson County, which borders Alabama and Georgia, about 98 percent of customers are still without power.
In the meantime, in many areas devastated by the hurricane, law enforcement officials are battling looting of homes and businesses.
Bay County Sheriff’s Maj. Jimmy Stanford said deputies have arrested about 10 looters each night since the storm hit. In some parts of the county, residents have spray-painted signs warning that “looters will be shot.”
Callaway resident Victoria Smith told the News Herald that thieves came into her townhome while she and her four children were sleeping with the front door open to allow a breeze inside.
“I must’ve been so exhausted from everything in the past days I didn’t even hear them come in,” Smith said. “They just snatched my purse out of my hands and ran. … It was all we had.”
Often the looters have been armed, Stanford said.
“Most of our officers lost their homes, have been working 16- to 18-hour shifts with no sleep, no shower, and now they’re encountering armed individuals,” he said. “It’s a stressful time for everyone in Bay County.”
The storm killed at least 16 people in Florida, most of them in the coastal county that took a direct hit from the storm, state emergency authorities said Tuesday. That’s in addition to at least 10 deaths elsewhere across the South.
The scope of the storm’s fury became clearer after nearly a week of missing-persons reports and desperate searches of the Florida Panhandle neighborhoods devastated by the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in nearly 50 years.
The Florida Department of Emergency Management’s count of 16 dead was twice the number previously tallied by The Associated Press, and included 12 deaths in Bay County, where the hurricane slammed ashore with 155 mph winds and a catastrophic storm surge last Wednesday.
Bay County includes Mexico Beach, the ground-zero town of 1,000 people that was nearly obliterated, as well as Tyndall Air Force Base, Panama City and Lynn Haven, all of which were heavily damaged.
The state’s tally did not provide details of how the victims’ deaths were storm-related, and the Associated Press was not immediately able to confirm those details for all of them. The AP’s tally of deaths, in which authorities have confirmed details of how people died, stood at eight in Florida, and 18 overall including other states.
The AP’s tally also includes 10 deaths in Virginia, Georgia and North Carolina.
Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey said two deaths were confirmed in his town, a man and a woman who did not evacuate and whose homes were destroyed.
Only one person remained missing in Mexico Beach, Cathey said, adding that authorities were almost certain that that person evacuated before Michael and simply hasn’t been contacted.
“We’re holding steady at two and don’t expect that number to rise,” the mayor said.
Nearly 137,000 Florida customers remain without power in an 11-county region that stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to the Georgia border, according to information compiled by state emergency management officials.
One glimmer of hope: Cellphone service has begun returning to the stricken zone.
Cathey had a one-word exclamation when his Verizon phone started working for the first time in nearly a week: “Hallelujah!”
Verizon service also resumed in Panama City, where residents haven’t been able to contact loved ones or call for help. The telecommunications giant later announced it would give a three-month credit to every Verizon customer in Bay and Gulf counties.
Gov. Rick Scott had been criticizing phone companies over what he called a slow restoration of service.
Sitting outside in the sweltering heat in the Panama City area as she fanned herself with a flyswatter, Christy Tanksley said the sudden improvement in cell service was a huge relief.
“A lot of people didn’t even know we had evacuated and come back,” said Tanksley, whose phone uses the Verizon network.
“I turned my phone on this morning and it started going crazy,” she said. “There were all kinds of messages, Facebook notifications, emails and emergency alerts.”
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