Tom Garcia surveyed the damage to an apartment block on the coast road in Mexico Beach, Florida, pacing along in his walker through the debris on Friday. (Oct. 13)
PANAMA CITY, Fla. – While crews continued the search Saturday for thousands of people reported missing after Hurricane Michael ravaged Florida’s Panhandle, those devastated by the storm were left scrambling for food and water – trying to put the pieces of their lives back together.
The death toll from the monstrous storm has risen almost daily as crews made their way into some of the areas hit hardest. As of Saturday evening, it had risen to 18, according to Reuters and the New York Times.
Eight people have died in Florida, six in Virginia, three in North Carolina and one in Georgia, the news outlets reported.
Virginia State Police said in a news release Saturday evening that a woman’s body was found earlier in the day. The state Department of Emergency Management says the discovery brings the total of storm-related deaths in Virginia to six.
By some estimates, nearly 300 people stayed behind, ignoring evacuation pleas, as the storm rolled ashore as a monster Category 4. Officials have gotten thousands of missing people reports but with network outages, it’s been a tough job determining whether some of the missing are simply unable to communicate with loved ones.
Long lines have formed at distribution centers where authorities are giving out food and water to those in need. The National Guard helped Saturday to man a station at Lucille Moore Elementary School in Panama City, Florida.
The troops, out of Sanford, Florida set up about a dozen pallets of bottled water early Saturday. But more than delivering supplies, the group of about 97 soldiers was trying to deliver hope.
Grateful families smiled, waved and thanked the soldiers as they loaded them up with supplies, and soldiers smiled, waved back and offered words of encouragement.
“Smiles are contagious,” 2nd Lt. Scott Mandelberg explained.
Hurricane Michael ravaged Panama City, Florida. Aerial views of the aftermath show the massive scale of destruction.
He said the company had arrived Wednesday and spent the last few days clearing roadways and distributing needed items. He said even the most veteran soldiers could only marvel at the damage.
“We’ve got guys who have been in the Florida National Guard 10-15 years, and even they recognize the devastation,” Mandelberg said.
Still, he said the company was trained, prepared and eager to assist – ready to stay as long as they were needed.
“We are also Floridians, and you are our neighbors,” Mandelberg said on the company’s behalf. “We are committed to protecting the lives and property of our citizens and guests.”
David Passey, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said FEMA had supplied more than 700,000 meals and more than 1 million liters of water.
Governor Rick Scott called Florida “a very resilient state” following his tour of the destruction caused by Hurricane Michael.
He said in the short term, the goal is to “get the debris removed from the area so emergency food and water can get in and the local supply chain – grocery stores, hardware stores – can get back in and do their thing.”
One could see some of the weight lift off Robert and Angie Wands shoulders’ when the husband and wife were handed two bags stuffed with plates of barbecue.
Barnes, a former U.S. Marine, said most of his neighbors were elderly and had difficulty getting around and finding supplies on their own.
“We’ve been getting cars out from under debris, opening up doorways and feeding them barbecue,” Barnes said, gesturing toward his bags.
For people like Barnes and his neighbors, the food was a godsend. For the volunteers slaving over grills and smokers, the work was food for the soul.
The Salvation Army and Operation BBQ Relief, a nonprofit that cooks free hot meals in disaster zones across the country, set up shop in a parking lot near the foot of the Hathaway Bridge leading into Panama City on Saturday.
Will Cleaver, co-founder and CFO of the nonprofit, estimated volunteers would cook 10,000-15,000 meals Saturday and 15,000-20,000 meals Sunday.
Early Saturday afternoon, about 100 people eagerly waited in line for a taste of pork tenderloin, Boston butts and burgers after days of making due with chips and peanut butter sandwiches.
Many of the cooks were volunteers from the competitive barbecue circuit who already had the experience and the gear to cook lots of good meals quickly and on-the-go.
Cleaver said many of the volunteers had been in Wilmington, North Carolina, assisting with Hurricane Florence relief.
Laura Kidwell, one of the volunteers, said being able to help someone find a small measure of happiness in the midst of tragedy is an amazing feeling.
“I can’t explain in words how it felt to be out there,” Kidwell said. “You are working sun up to sun down, these crazy hours, but there’s a lot of adrenaline and people are so grateful. Once you get the bug for helping, it’s kind of like an addiction.”
Becca Aldridge and her girls, 7-year-old Cesaleigh and 5-year-old Cydaleigh, crossed a busy 11th Avenue, toting plastic foam boxes filled with pie from a Salvation Army food truck parked at the damaged middle school across the street.
It was the young girls’ first hot meal in days, she said.
The family rode out the hurricane in their beachside home. The house lost its roof, flooding occupants and contents with rain and sea water.
They’re still in the home, despite the dampness and fast-growing mold, for the same reason they didn’t leave ahead of the storm. “We have no money,” Aldridge said.
Many felt the same sense of hopelessness. Mahbubur Rahman and his wife, Farzana Akter, opened the doors to their new convenience store on Monday.
On Tuesday, they closed them. On Wednesday, they lost everything.
Standing behind the counter of the convenience store in Panama City – newly christened Stop N’ Go Jr. – Rahman watched Saturday as his family and employees swept up shards of broken glass and ceiling tile.
A mountain of candy, still in its wrappers, soaked through and inedible, sat in a shaft of sunlight pouring through a large hole in the ceiling, the only light in the otherwise dark store.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said again, holding back tears. “I don’t have anything left.”
Even those who escaped destruction are without power and running water for the foreseeable future.
Power and cellphone service are starting to be restored in parts of Florida but state emergency management officials reported Saturday that nearly 264,000 customers remain without electricity in the state.
They also said that 80 percent of cellphone service has been restored throughout the region hit by Hurricane Michael. But the numbers remain high in the hardest-hit areas.
Hayes reported from Washington, D.C.; Robinson and Rogers reported from Panama City, Florida. Contributing: Associated Press
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