Joe Bush says he’s lived 19 years in Mexico Beach, Florida, and loves it. But on Monday, after surveying the damage inflicted by Hurricane Michael, he’s decided to move away.
He’s ridden out previous storms but evacuated when he heard Michael was a Category 4 storm. He came back to find his house, furniture and vehicles were heavily damaged by water.
“I couldn’t get nothing for this land now,” he said. “People gonna be scared to death to come down here now and invest money. So we’re just going to leave it. Hold onto the land and I have a 10-year-old grandson and hopefully when he gets 50 he can retire down here.”
Mexico Beach took the hardest punch from Michael when the storm made landfall five days ago. Besides the widespread destruction, town police say two people were killed there, including one body found Monday.
That brings the death toll from the storm to 19 people in four states.
One piece of good news emerged Monday when Mexico City Police Chief Anthony Kelly said the number of unaccounted people in the town was down to three. Earlier, authorities said they could not account for 30 to 35 people in the town on the Gulf Coast. Crews have spent days sifting through heavy rubble looking for them.
It’s unknown how many people are missing overall because of Michael.
Mexico Beach residents will be allowed to return to the town Tuesday if they have proof of residence or photo ID, City Manager Tanya Castro said. An evening curfew remains in place and residents will not be allowed to stay overnight. Castro said officials hope to have electricity up and running on the east side of town in weeks, rather than months.
Randy June is one resident who plans to move back. On Monday, he stared at his flattened neighborhood, dazed as his belongings lay strewn across a canal. But while his house is destroyed, this Florida Panhandle town is still home.
“We ain’t going nowhere. We’re going to rebuild somehow. I just don’t know how yet,” he said.
Beyond the ruins of this once-idyllic beach town, thousands of other Floridians must start a new life marked by grief, desperation and uncertainty.
More than 230,000 were still without power Monday morning, unable to fend off the stifling heat. Drivers are lining up for hours to get fuel. And residents in the hardest-hit areas are relying on airdropped food and water to survive.
On Monday, President Donald Trump visited some of the devastated cities in Florida and Georgia.
Over the weekend, he made a disaster declaration for six Georgia counties. That followed his previous declaration of a major disaster in nine Florida counties.
These declarations give affected residents and businesses access to federal aid and funding.
FEMA has 14 teams in Florida to help people register for disaster assistance. It also has 17 distribution points throughout Florida and Georgia where people can get food and water.
‘Nobody was in tears about being hungry’
Chad Frazier has plenty of reasons to be devastated. His business was wiped out by the hurricane. His son’s middle school in Panama City was also annihilated.
But Frazier is too thankful to be upset. Immediately after the hurricane, strangers came from out of town to provide food and water. They even beat FEMA to the scene, Frazier said.
“The people who came, that was the biggest blessing to us,” he said. “I didn’t see nobody in panic mode. Nobody was in tears about being hungry.”
As he stood in front of a mountain of debris, Frazier said he’s coping well thanks to the outpouring of generosity.
“My shop is down, (but) I’m not in bad spirits,” he said. “This just made my faith grow.”
Arthur Phillips said his house in Panama City was not badly damaged, partly thanks to hurricane windows, but the rest of the city is “like a war zone.”
“It’s really really bad,” he said. “Everybody’s come together to help. There’s a lot of Red Cross. Everybody’s coming out to help.”
Businesses have donated at least $425,000 to Hurricane Michael relief efforts, according to a release from Gov. Rick Scott’s office.
The release says Wells Fargo donated $250,000, Aetna donated $100,000, Duke Energy donated $50,000 and Uber donated $25,000 to the Florida Disaster Fund.
Across town, a Panama City Waffle House was so damaged that only the “s” remained on its iconic sign. While Waffle Houses are known for staying open during natural disasters, this restaurant took a beating.
But that didn’t stop employees from feeding neighbors on Monday.
“We are giving out free food curbside at 2217 Thomas Drive,” the restaurant chain tweeted. “Come on by until 6 pm!”
Residents could still be trapped
Hundreds of people from across the country have called local officials, desperate for any news about their loved ones.
But rescue attempts have been arduous because of widespread debris and buckled roads that make transportation difficult.
Crews are using bulldozers to move debris and cutting trees with chainsaws to clear highways and hundreds of roads blocked by the wreckage.
“What’s taking up most of your time right now just gaining access to some of these areas,” said Panama City Fire Chief Alex Baird.
The fire department has received more than 200 calls for checks on residents. But Baird said it could take days or even weeks before those checks will be completed. Crews need to go door-to-door because there is no power, and cellphone service is spotty.
The hurricane also damaged three prisons on the Florida panhandle, forcing the evacuation of more than 4,100 inmates, the state’s department of corrections said Monday.
The death toll is 19, but could rise
At least 19 people have died since Hurricane Michael made landfall Wednesday.
Six of those victims died in Virginia. Four people drowned and a firefighter was killed when a tractor-trailer lost control and hit the firefighter’s truck on a wet highway. Virginia emergency officials said the sixth person died in Charlotte County.
In Georgia, an 11-year-old girl died when a metal carport came crashing through her family’s roof.
In North Carolina, two of the three people who died in the storm were killed when their vehicle struck a fallen tree, McDowell County officials said.
But the most fatalities happened in Florida, where nine people were killed — including Steven Sweet, who died when an oak tree fell on his Gretna home.
Many of the rescue efforts have been focused on Mexico Beach, where canine teams are combing through mangled structures and piles of rubble looking for survivors.
About 280 of the town’s 1,200 residents had said they planned to ride out the storm, but many fled at the last minute when Michael quickly gained strength, Mayor Al Cathey said.
With each passing day, the odds of trapped victims surviving get smaller. In Mexico Beach, authorities brought in a temporary morgue, just in case.
No school indefinitely
Schools in at least eight counties — Washington, Liberty, Jackson, Gulf, Gadsden, Franklin, Calhoun and Bay — will remain closed because of storm damage, according to a press release from the governor’s office.
In devastated Bay County, Florida, officials said every school is damaged.
“It’s not going to be a normal school year. There’s nothing normal about where we are right now,” Bay District Schools Superintendent Bill Husfelt told CNN affiliate WMBB.
With the majority of its 26,000 students displaced and many schools deemed unsafe because of the damage, officials are discussing alternative ways to get students back to the classroom and to provide psychological aid for them.
“I would say every single school in Bay County has some type of damage, some more extensive than others,” said Steve Moss, vice chairman of the Bay District School Board. “Some it’ll probably take weeks or months to get online. Some, it will take years.”