Hurricane death toll climbs as help rolls in
Metro area agency among those sending supplies to South
Mexico Beach, Fla. — Searchand-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.
Blocks and blocks of homes there were demolished, reduced to splintered lumber or mere concrete slabs by the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in nearly 50 years.
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.
Residents, meanwhile, began to come to grips with the destruction and face up to the uncertainty that lies ahead.
Greg Kopicko of Owosso said his daughter Brianna rode out the storm huddled for six hours in the bathtub of her home in Panama City Beach, Florida, her 6-day-old daughter Kelly in her arms, and her other young children, ages 2 and 3, pressed
Brianna Kopicko, 22, and her children survived the storm, her father said, but her house didn’t.
“She lost everything,” said Greg Kopicko, 47, of Owosso. “Their house was destroyed. So was the hospital where Kelly was born. They’re headed to North Carolina to stay with my other daughter until they can figure out what to do next.”
With much of the South struggling, the leader of an Oakland County nonprofit is heading to the disaster zone in hopes of helping victims.
Greg Martin, director of the Waterford Township-based nonprofit Disaster Relief at Work, lived in Jacksonville, Florida, from 2001 to 2005, and wants to connect with friends who aren’t answering their phones in the storm’s aftermath.
“It’s hard getting a hold of people, because many places don’t have cell service,” he said Friday. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to connect with them when I’m down there.”
Martin said he plans to send a truck full of supplies to help hurricane victims, and then meet the truck in Florida.
“We have a plan right now, but any time there’s a disaster of this magnitude, the plans can change from hour to hour,” he said. “(Saturday), we’ll fill up a semi to send down to Florida, and then I’m going to meet the truck down there. It’s tricky to coordinate, though, because they don’t have cell phone service or electricity in many places. We usually connect with the local agencies, but right now they’re kind of spinning their wheels.”
Martin said his resources are stretched thin. “Our warehouse is pretty depleted because we just sent a bunch of supplies to the Carolinas after Hurricane Florence.”
Across the ravaged region, officials 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 roads had yet to be cleared of debris.
President Trump announced plans to visit Florida and hard-hit Georgia next week but didn’t say what day he would arrive.
“We are with you!” he tweeted. Search teams continued to pick their way through the ruins of Mexico Beach, the ground-zero town of about 1,000 people that was nearly wiped off the map when Michael blew ashore.
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.
Greg Kopicko said it was tough waiting it out Thursday, 1,000 miles away and unable to reach his daughter because of bad cell phone reception.
“I had told her ‘if you’re ever in a hurricane, the safest place to go is the bathtub,’ ” he said. “Then I couldn’t get in touch with her. I was ready to drive down there, I was so worried. I didn’t get to talk to her until about 9 (p.m.).
“She got out of the hospital with the baby just in time to go home and get into the eye of the storm,” said Kopicko, who joked his daughter should have named the child “Kelly Michael.”
“My daughter may have PTSD after going through that,” he said. “They all survived it — that’s all that matters to me. But they lost everything. They have no home to go back to. I told her to make sure she stays on the insurance company to see what was insured. It’s hard now, though, because they’re trying to get situated.”
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 to let them know.
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.
Shell-shocked survivors who barely escaped with their lives told of terrifying winds, surging floodwaters and homes cracking like eggs.
Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long said he expects to see the death toll rise.
“We still haven’t gotten into the hardest-hit 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.”
Martin’s agency sends out “buckets” that are tailored to specific needs. He said he’s sending 400 of the buckets to Florida.
“We have different buckets for different situations. We have a family bathroom bucket, which is bathroom supplies for a family of four. We have a post-flood cleaning bucket, with cleaning supplies. There’s a valuable salvaging bucket, which is if you’re sorting through rubble and searching for your valuables; and a roof patching bucket. They’re all customized.”
The agency is collecting donated materials at the Coffee Bucket at 3549 Airport Road in Waterford. The shop is open Monday-Friday 6:30 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday from 6:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; and weekends from 8 a.m.-2 p.m.
Needed materials include: 5gallon buckets with lids, large tarps, heavy-duty trash bags, scrub brushes, Rubbermaid-style bins with lids, clothesline (25 to 100 feet long), clothespins, cotton cleaning cloths, dish soap, (16 to 28 oz. bottle liquid only), insect repellent spray, liquid laundry detergent (25-42 oz.), and rubber/latex palmed work gloves.
A body is removed from rubble Friday in Mexico Beach, Florida. The number of dead in Hurricane Michael’s wake was expected to rise.
This photo combo shows the Panama City neighborhood of Ivy Road Estates before and after Michael.
A man walks through the damaged historical downtown district in Panama City on Friday.