Grim re­al­ity as death toll rises

Search teams find even more bod­ies in Pan­han­dle town

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Russ Bynum and Bren­dan Far­ring­ton

MEX­ICO BEACH, Fla. — Search and res­cue teams be­gan find­ing bod­ies in and around Mex­ico Beach, the ground-zero town nearly oblit­er­ated by Hur­ri­cane Michael, an of­fi­cial said Fri­day as the scale of the storm's fury be­came ever clearer.

But he gave no de­tails on the num­ber of dead.

The death toll across the South stood at 13, not count­ing any vic­tims in Mex­ico Beach.

Mi­ami Fire Chief Joseph Zahral­ban, leader of a search-and-res­cue unit that went into the flat­tened town, said: “There are in­di­vid­u­als who are de­ceased. We do not have a count, but we are work­ing to iden­tify them.”

Zahral­ban spoke as his team — which in­cluded a dog — was wind­ing down its two-day search of Mex­ico Beach, the town of about 1,000 peo­ple that was nearly wiped off the map when Michael blew ashore there Wed­nes­day with dev­as­tat­ing 155 mph winds.

Blocks and blocks of homes were de­mol­ished, re­duced to splin­tered lum­ber or mere con­crete slabs by the most pow­er­ful hur­ri­cane to hit the con­ti­nen­tal U.S. in decades.

As the cat­a­strophic dam­age across the Florida Pan­han­dle came into view 48 hours af­ter the hur­ri­cane struck, there was lit­tle doubt the death toll would rise.

How high it might go was un­clear. But author­i­ties scrapped plans to set up a tem­po­rary morgue, sug­gest­ing they had yet to see mass ca­su­al­ties.

State of­fi­cials said that by one count, 285 peo­ple in Mex­ico Beach de­fied manda­tory evac­u­a­tion or­ders and stayed be­hind. Whether any of them got out at some point was un­clear.

Emer­gency of­fi­cials said they have re­ceived thou­sands of calls ask­ing about miss­ing peo­ple. But with cell­phone ser­vice out across vast swaths of the Florida Pan­han­dle, of­fi­cials said it is pos­si­ble that some of those un­ac­counted for are safe and just haven't been able to con­tact friends or fam­ily.

Florida emer­gency of­fi­cials said they have res­cued nearly 200 peo­ple and checked 25,000 struc­tures since Michael bat­tered the state.

In a brief­ing at the state emer­gency op­er­a­tions cen­ter in Tal­la­has­see on Fri­day, author­i­ties said they had wrapped up their ini­tial rapid searches and had be­gun Brandy Jessen climbs over de­bris while re­triev­ing some of her par­ents’ be­long­ings Fri­day in Mex­ico Beach, Fla. more-in­tense searches in­clud­ing in­spect­ing col­lapsed build­ings.

The of­fi­cials say they've com­pleted 40 per­cent of these “sec­ondary” searches and hope to fin­ish up dur­ing day­light hours Satur­day.

Across the rav­aged re­gion, mean­while, author­i­ties set up dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ters to hand out food and wa­ter to vic­tims. Some sup­plies were brought in by trucks, while oth­ers had to be de­liv­ered by he­li­copter be­cause of de­bris still block­ing roads.

Res­i­dents be­gan to come to grips with the de­struc­tion and face up to the un­cer­tainty that lies ahead.

“I didn't rec­og­nize noth­ing. Ev­ery­thing's gone. I didn't even know our road was our road,” said 25-year-old Tif­fany Marie Plush­nik, an evac­uee who re­turned to find her home in Sandy Creek too dam­aged to live in.

When she went back to the ho­tel where she took shel­ter from the storm, she found out she could no longer stay there ei­ther be­cause of mold. “We've got to fig­ure some­thing out. We're start­ing from scratch, all of us,” Plush­nik said.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump an­nounced plans to visit Florida and hard-hit Ge­or­gia early next but didn't say what day he would ar­rive. “We are with you!” he tweeted. Shell-shocked sur­vivors who barely es­caped with their lives told of ter­ri­fy­ing winds, surg­ing flood­wa­ters and homes crack­ing apart.

Emer­gency of­fi­cials said they had com­pleted an ini­tial “hasty search” of the stricken area, look­ing for the liv­ing or the dead, and were now launch­ing into more care­ful in­spec­tions of ru­ined build­ings.

Gov. Rick Scott said state of­fi­cials still “do not know enough” about the fate of those who stayed be­hind in the re­gion.

“We are not com­pletely done. We are still get­ting down there,” the gov­er­nor added.

Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency chief Brock Long said he ex­pects to see the death toll rise.

“We still haven't got­ten into the hard­esthit ar­eas,” he said, adding with frus­tra­tion: “Very few peo­ple live to tell what it's like to ex­pe­ri­ence storm surge, and un­for­tu­nately in this coun­try we seem to not learn the les­son.”

Long ex­pressed worry that peo­ple have suf­fered “hur­ri­cane am­ne­sia.”

“When state and lo­cal of­fi­cials tell you to get out, dang it, do it. Get out,” he said.

On the Pan­han­dle, Tyn­dall Air Force Base “took a beat­ing,” so much so that Col. Brian Laid­law told the 3,600 men and women sta­tioned on the base not to come back. Many of the 600 fam­i­lies who live there had fol­lowed or­ders to pack what they could in a sin­gle suit­case as they were evac­u­ated ahead of the storm.

The hur­ri­cane's eye­wall passed di­rectly over­head, se­verely dam­ag­ing nearly ev­ery build­ing and leav­ing many a com­plete loss. The el­e­men­tary school, the flight line, the ma­rina and the run­ways were dev­as­tated.

“I will not re­call you and your fam­i­lies un­til we can guar­an­tee your safety. At this time I can't tell you how long that will take, but I'm on it,” Laid­law wrote. “We need to re­store ba­sic util­i­ties, clear our roads of trees and power lines, and as­sess the struc­tural in­tegrity of our build­ings.”

Mean­while, af­ter mov­ing off­shore in re­cent weeks, a toxic al­gae bloom has re­turned to the beaches of the Tampa area, blown in from Michael.

Mea­sure­ments posted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Com­mis­sion on its red tide web­site showed high con­cen­tra­tions off Pinel­las County,

DAVID GOLD­MAN/AP

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