PANAMA CITY, Fla. (AP) — Residents of hurricane-ravaged communities in Florida’s Panhandle turned to volunteers and each other for help Monday, the fifth day without cell service, electricity or, in many cases, shelter.
Trevor Lewis, a member of a six-person search-and-rescue unit, said he watched storm victims “cry out in joy” when his team let them use its cellphones to contact loved ones for the first time in days.
“The amount of stress that people are in, not just from losing everything, but not having phones, power, food, water, puts a huge toll on the emotional factor of people stuck in these houses,” Lewis said. “And it really ups the ante a whole lot more.”
As President Donald Trump visited the devastated zone, the death toll from Michael’s march from Florida to Virginia stood at 17, with just one confirmed death so far in Mexico Beach, a town of about 1,000 people that was nearly wiped off the map in a direct hit from the hurricane and its 155 mph (250 kph) winds last week.
City Clerk Adrian Welle told local media that 46 people in Mexico Beach were still unaccounted for. That number had previously been 285, but officials think many left right before the storm hit.
Trump took a helicopter tour over Mexico Beach and also saw the badly damaged Tyndall Air Force base. After landing in Panama City, he visited Lynn Haven, another hard-hit city. Trump walked up to a house where a massive pine tree lay on the front yard. The owner, Michael Rollins, told Trump he rode out the storm.
“I knew I had made my commitment to stay with my animals. I have two dogs and a parrot,” Rollins told the president.
Some in the affected area were lukewarm about the president’s visit.
About 5 miles from a neighborhood Trump visited, 57-year-old Sheila Vann sat on a cooler in her garage, taking a break from cleaning up. The hurricane tore off much of her roof in Panama City, and most of her ceiling collapsed after soaking up the storm’s rain. Plus there were four freezers filled with fish and meat that were starting to spoil and smell.
“You want to see the president?” Vann asked her husband, Joseph, with a dismissive tone. “I ain’t got time, unless he wants to help clean up.”
Vann praised the efforts of first responders after the storm. Deputies and state troopers have stopped by her house daily to make sure everyone is OK. Volunteers have dropped off hot meals of shrimp and chicken, as well as supplies. Vann’s garage had 12 cases of water stacked beside a wall.
“What we need is money, not politics,” Vann said.
“Get the president to give more money for rebuilding and people who don’t have insurance. You’ve got people living in houses with the tops off and they’re looking up at the sky. That’s because they’ve go nowhere to go.”
Nanya Thompson, 68, of Lynn Haven, said of the president: “He’s doing this, I believe, to project a different image of himself because of all the bad publicity he’s had. He’s not going into get into the sewage water with other people and start digging.”
“If this is just going to be another reality show, I don’t think he should come,” she added.
Trump commended Republican Gov. Rick Scott for an “incredible” response to the disaster and said: “You’re a great governor.” Scott, who is running for the U.S. Senate, returned the praise, saying, “Every time I’ve called, he’s come through.”
Across the stricken Panhandle, nerves were frayed as storm victims confronted shortages of gas and other supplies.
Limon Wilson sat for an hour with his car parked at a gas pump with no fuel outside hard-hit Panama City. His home in the city was badly damaged, with a tree through the roof. He was trying to find shelter for his four children and other family members.
“We’ve been trying to rough it at home for the last few days. But it’s hot,” Wilson said as his 8-month-old daughter sat on his knee.
As of Sunday, more than 190,000 homes and businesses in Florida were without electricity, along with about 120,000 in Georgia.
It was unclear how many people were missing. Because of widespread cellphone outages, authorities said some people who are safe may not be able to let friends or loved ones know.
A Houston-based organization called CrowdSource Rescue that takes calls from worried family members and sends the details to rescue crews on the ground said it has helped find nearly 1,500 people since Michael struck. But co-founder Matthew Marchetti said it was still looking for more than 1,350 in the hurricane-affected area.
Lewis was part of a team that spent days doing more than 100 wellness checks on people reported missing by family members in Lynn Haven.
“Just the desperation in the family members’ voices that hadn’t contacted their loved one for a few days was bad,” he said. “Then we get on scene and find their family members and they have no food, no water, no power.”
Lewis’ crew, the self-funded group Salty Water Rescue Services, which is made up of local law enforcement and fire rescue officials from Cocoa Beach, found a woman in her 80s who had no food and just a few bottles of water left. They evacuated her and put her on the phone with a family member.
They also evacuated 50 to 100 people in a Lynn Haven neighborhood after discovering a gas leak while searching for victims.
Florida officials have begun criticizing the time it is taking Verizon to restore cellphone service on the Panhandle. Verizon responded on Twitter that it was working “urgently.”