Candace Phillips sifts through what was her third-floor bedroom while returning to her damaged home in Mexico Beach, Fla., Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018, in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. “We spent 25 years of our marriage working to get here and we’re going to stay,” said Phillips of her and husband’s plans to rebuild. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

In Florida, families seeking the missing amid storm damage

Five days after the hurricane slammed into the Florida Panhandle, people are struggling to locate friends and loved ones.

Joanne Garone Behnke has replayed every possible scenario in her mind a hundred times.

Maybe her 79-year-old aunt sought shelter at the sturdy condo nearby that withstood Hurricane Michael’s devastating winds. Maybe she was rescued and is lying in a hospital bed somewhere. The pile of rubble that was once her Mexico Beach home is shallow, too shallow for a body to go unnoticed, Garone Behnke tells herself.

“It’s torture,” says Garone Behnke, who last talked to her Aunt Aggie Vicari right before the storm hit, begging her to leave her cinderblock home.

Five days after the hurricane slammed into the Florida Panhandle, people are struggling to locate friends and loved ones who haven’t been heard from, though how many residents are missing seems to be anyone’s guess.

“I’ve been on the phone to reporters, to fire chiefs, to heads of task force from Miami, to you name it, I’ve called them. I’ve called every hospital,” Garone Behnke said Monday, then stopped to look at a text from the fire chief in Mexico Beach.

To her disappointment, it read: “We’re still working on it … we’ll keep you posted.”

As President Donald Trump visited the devastated zone, the death toll from Michael’s march from Florida to Virginia stood at 17, and the search for victims continued.

As the hurricane closed in and more than 375,000 people were warned to evacuate, emergency authorities expressed frustration that many residents weren’t leaving.

Since the storm, many people have been rescued from the devastated zones. Emergency officials said that because of widespread cellphone outages, others could be safe and just haven’t been able to tell friends or family.

Related: Atlantic Canada sees heavy rains, winds from post-tropical storm Michael

Related: Hurricane Michael left path of destruction, isn’t done yet

Rescue worker Trevor Lewis and the rest of his six-member squad lent their cellphones to storm victims so that they could contact loved ones for the first time in days. He said he watched them “cry out in joy.”

“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.”

There was just one confirmed death so far in Mexico Beach, the 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.

Mexico Beach City Clerk Adrian Welle told local media Sunday that 46 people were unaccounted for. That number had previously been 285, but officials think many left right before the storm hit. Other city officials told reporters that the number of unaccounted for was three.

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 across the region since Michael struck.

George Ruiz, a former Coast Guard rescue boat driver from Alabama who runs Geaux Rescue, a non-profit search-and-rescue operation, complained that authorities aren’t allowing volunteer groups into hard-hit Mexico Beach and Panama City.

“There’s a lot of work to be done still as far as the rescue and recovery goes,” said Ruiz, whose organization still has 433 requests for help from family members looking for loved ones.

“We listened to voicemails we received overnight,” he said, “and you can just hear in their voice their desperation, wanting to know if their family member is alive and well or if their family member has passed.”

Melissa and Rodney Reinhardt spent days wondering whether Rodney’s 79-year-old father survived the storm at his home in the devastated Port St. Joe area.

“Our hope was that he evacuated but nobody had heard from him,” she said. “It’s horrifying not knowing. It’s scary. Seeing the pictures on the news makes it even scarier.”

Emergency officials checked on him Thursday night and said he was there, but that was all the information they received. Rodney finally went in with a church group on Sunday and picked him up.

“It was a happy ending,” Melissa Reinhardt said.

During his visit to the devastated zone, 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.”

Some in the affected area were lukewarm about the president’s visit.

About 5 miles from a neighbourhood 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. She had 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.”

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.

___

Contributors in Florida include Associated Press writers Russ Bynum in Mexico Beach, Brendan Farrington in Panama City, Gary Fineout in Tallahassee, Kelli Kennedy in Miami and AP Photographer Gerald Herbert in Panama City.

___

Russ Bynum And Kelli Kennedy, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

"We are looking seriously at the spread and determining what our next steps should be," says Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, as the daily number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb.
427 new COVID cases is highest in Alberta ever

Central zone has 126 active cases of COVID-19

100 Women Who Care make a donation to Sylvan Lake Food Bank and Bethany Care Centre. Photo By Megan Roth/Sylvan Lake News
100 Women Who Care donate to four Sylvan Lake groups

The Food Bank, Bethany Sylvan Lake, Community Partners and the Library all received a donation

RCMP. (Black Press File Photo)
Calgary man dies in two-vehicle collision near Sylvan Lake

A semi truck collided with a SUV just east of Hwy. 781 on Hwy 11.

Shaelynn Decock and her dog Taco, who has been missing since Aug. 26. Photo Submitted
Sylvan Lake woman looking for closure for her stolen dog

Shaelynn Decock says it has been two months since she last saw her dog Taco

Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw updates media on the Covid-19 situation in Edmonton on Friday March 20, 2020. nbsp;Alberta is reporting it's highest daily number of COVID-19 cases, with 364 new infections. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta confirmed 323 COVID-19 cases Tuesday

Central zone active cases at 145

B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, B.C. NDP leader John Horgan and B.C. Greens leader Sonia Furstenau. (Black Press Media)
VIDEO: One day until B.C. voters go to the polls in snap election defined by pandemic

NDP Leader John Horgan’s decision to call an election comes more than a year ahead of schedule and during a pandemic

A Le Chateau retail store is shown in Montreal on Wednesday July 13, 2016. Le Chateau Inc. says it is seeking court protection from creditors under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act to allow it to liquidate its assets and wind down its operations.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Clothing retailer Le Chateau plans to close its doors, files for CCAA protection

Le Chateau said it intends to remain fully operational as it liquidates its 123 stores

U.S. border officers at the Peace Arch crossing arrested two men on California warrants this week. (File photo)
Ottawa predicts system delays, backlogs unless court extends life of refugee pact

Canada and the United States recognize each other as safe places to seek protection

Conservative member of Parliament Michelle Rempel Garner, left to right, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen arrive to hold a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
No-confidence showdown over sweeping Tory motion on government handling of pandemic

The Conservative motion is to be put to a vote Monday and has the support of both the Bloc Québécois and NDP

From l-r., first lady Melania Trump, President Donald Trump, moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News, Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden on stage at the conclusion of the second and final presidential debate Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Trump, Biden fight over the raging virus, climate and race

Republican president declared the virus, which killed more than 1,000 Americans on Thursday alone, will “go away.”

JJ Collett Natural Area Foundation held its AGM on Oct. 19 at the Ponoka Legion. (Emily Jaycox/Ponoka News)
De-listing Alberta parks creates ‘risk’ for coal mining: CPAWS

Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society speaks at JJ Collett AGM

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
Temporary COVID-19 testing sites coming to Wetaskiwin and Ponoka

The Wetaskiwin location will open Oct. 23, 2020 and the Ponoka location will open Oct. 29.

ACC President and CEO Ken Kobly spoke to Ponoka Chamber of Commerce members over Zoom on Oct. 20. (Image: screenshot)
Alberta chambers are ‘411’ to members, government: ACC president

Changes to government supports, second wave and snap election

Smartphone showing various applications to social media services and Google. (Pixabay photo)
National media calling for level playing field with Google, Facebook

In Canada, Google and Facebook control 80 per cent of all online advertising revenues

Most Read