By Rod Nickel
MEXICOBEACH, Fla. (Reuters) – Search and rescue volunteers have located hundreds of people reported missing in the U.S. Southeast after Hurricane Michael tore through their Florida Panhandle communities, but the death toll of at least 18 was expected to rise.
Crews heard cries for help and crowbarred into a mobile home crumpled by the storm in Panama City, freeing a mother and daughter, both diabetics who had been trapped in a closet without insulin for two days and were on the verge of diabetic shock, rescuers said on Saturday.
“We had another lady who was on her last tank of oxygen. No cell phone, no power, no nothing. There are people out here on dialysis, but there is no power,” said Taylor Fontenot, 29, a roofing contractor from Sugar Land, Texas, and founder of 50 Star SAR, a volunteer search and rescue organisation.
In door-to-door searches, teams consisting mostly of off-duty police officers and firefighters have found more than 520 of the 2,100 people reported missing since Michael crashed ashore near Mexico Beach, Florida, on Wednesday as one of the most powerful storms in U.S. history.
“We expect that number to go up dramatically today,” said Matthew Marchetti, co-founder of the Houston-based CrowdSource Rescue, adding that hopes were raised by an influx of volunteers on the weekend and the restoration of power in some areas.
“Volunteers are working side-by-side with first responders. They are cutting holes in roofs. They try to take a picture so we can call the family and tell them we made contact,” he said.
But as roads were cleared to allow wider searches, the death toll was expected to mount. As of Saturday, authorities were reporting at least 18 deaths in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.
Rescue teams, hampered by power and telephone outages, used cadaver dogs, drones and heavy equipment to hunt for people in the rubble.
Fontenot, who said he alerts authorities when he finds corpses, has a cadaver dog with his group.
“When we pulled into Mexico Beach, she was trying to jump out the window because she smelled so many bodies,” he said.
In Callaway, Florida, an especially hard-hit town, Catholic Christians barbecued hamburgers on Saturday and Scientologists handed out water.
“I’m homeless,” said nursing assistant Carla Covington, 45, who is caring for her mother and two children after their house was destroyed by falling trees.
She said it felt good to receive comfort, but was also hard.
“I’m used to helping people and not asking for help,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion.
Panama City port worker Josh Jackson, 29, had three cars damaged. The rented home he lived in with his girlfriend and son was wrecked, as were their possessions.
“I lost everything so I got to start over,” he said near a tent in a parking lot where a Geico insurance agent was taking claims. Jackson said he plans to move to a community that was not so badly hit, but was concerned that delays processing his insurance claim might hold him up.
Michael ripped most of two walls out from the red-brick St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Panama City, but parishioners spent Saturday handing out food, water and clothes to others.
“Our whole city was hit. There has got be a way it can recover,” said Jo Ann Sutter, 73, a volunteer who was married in the church. “We will.”
The tropical storm, which grew in less than two days into a Category 4 hurricane, tore apart entire neighbourhoods.
More than 1,700 search and rescue workers were deployed, including seven swift-water rescue teams and nearly 300 ambulances, Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office said.
Power and phone service were being slowly restored, with about 236,000 homes and businesses still without power in North Carolina, down from a peak of more than 600,000, said spokesman Keith Acree of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.
It could be weeks before power is restored to the most damaged parts of Florida.
(Reporting by Rod Nickel; Additional reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in Port St. Joe, Florida, Barbara Goldberg in New York, and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Clelia Oziel and Daniel Wallis)