PANAMA CITY, Fla. – Federal officials helping Florida and other states dig out from the vast damage of Hurricane Michael said Friday it remains too dangerous to return to areas flooded by storm surge such as in Bay County.
Emergency teams are focused on restoring communications and transportation. But Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said debris and storm devastation in some areas prevents a safe return yet.
“It’s still not safe to return, particularly to Bay County, Florida,” Long said. “There is no infrastructure there to support you and quite honestly it’s a dangerous area to go back into.”
About 4,000 had applied to FEMA by Friday morning for financial assistance to repair their homes, said Alex Amparo, deputy assistant administrator for national preparedness. But that number was expected to grow as transportation and communications networks were restored, he said.
“We expect that number to continue to increase exponentially as more people have access to communications,” Amparo said.
About 2,900 people stayed in Red Cross evacuation centers and emergency shelters in Florida, Georgia and Alabama, according to spokesman Peter Macias. About 1,000 volunteers are helping provide shelter, food and health services in five states, he said.
FEMA is working with state officials on housing options such as mobile housing, rental units and retrofitting buildings, Amparo said.
“There are many people who evacuated further away or actually went to a hotel,” he said. “The emergency housing for folks right now – it’s either staying with family and friends, or the shelter where they stayed pre-landfall.”
Residents have 60 days to apply for financial assistance from FEMA, which is aimed at making dwellings habitable rather than fully restoring their value. If homes are destroyed, FEMA can sometimes use aerial images to assess the damage, Amparo said. But typically inspectors must visit the damaged dwellings with the residents and once the meeting is complete, money is transferred electronically sometimes as fast as within hours, he said.
Search and rescue operations continued. By 8 a.m. Friday, FEMA had conducted welfare checks of 654 people who stayed put for the storm, Amparo said. Authorities also assessed 1,000 structures and evacuated 27 people from dangerous areas, he said. But all of those numbers might have doubled during Friday, he estimated.
Crews worked to reopen damaged areas. Twisting convoys of bucket trucks and cherry pickers, carrying hundreds of power and tree service workers from around the region, fed in and out of the parking lot of the Walmart in Panama City Beach before dispersing across Bay County.
“Anybody who evacuated Mexico Beach who is in a shelter, it’s going to be a long time before they’re actually able to go back and return to those places because it was heavily damaged,” Long said.
As blue skies and sun returned to the Panhandle, the roar of chainsaws and generators drowned out chirping birds. In Panama City, the power is out, gas lines are shut down and cell phones couldn't get service.
“This is more devastating than I thought it would be,” said Katie Danielson, 38, whose home was damaged but is still livable with a small generator, an electric griddle and a pool to get water for flushing toilets. “I wish that we had left. It’s just kind of miserable right now.”
Residents scrounged for food and drinks, and fetching buckets of bayou water to flush their toilets. The Sam’s Club opened to sell gas, but almost no other stores were open.
“We were prepared for a day or two at the most,” said Tyson Bean, 26, who grilled and shared hamburgers with neighbors Thursday night. “But ice has melted and the food is gone.”
His girlfriend, Whitney Sharp, 32, wondered when schools might reopen. Her daughter, Jaslyn, 4, was supposed to have started pre-kindergarten next week.
“We have no idea,” Sharp said. “Some of our neighbors are teachers and they said it might be three months.”
On Beck Avenue near the Panama City waterfront, daylight poured between the exposed beams of Jordan Slaughter’s roof. Her apartment was still standing, but uninhabitable.
Slaughter bagged up the belongings that were worth saving, and gingerly stepped over the things that weren’t, as friends and family joked about the need for hazmat suits.
“I’m going to stay with family until the power comes back on or I find another job,” she said.
Agueda Sanchez and her son, Victor, used a tree limb to sweep up the debris at their family bakery where the 155 mph winds had blown out the building’s front wall.
The bakery, La Fuente on U.S. 98, had been part of a small strip mall occupied by a handful of local business owners. The roof was peeled off much of the complex. A pile of brick and debris containing everything from office chairs to a street sign lay where the western wall of the building once stood.
“I don’t know if they’re going to rebuild,” Victor Sanchez said. “It depends on the owners and the insurance.”
In Blountstown, about 50 miles northeast of Mexico Beach, those in need of food and water were queueing up near the town square.
“I’m the only person who has a car and gas,” said Sandra Clark of Clarksville, who sat crying in her car at the distribution center because the need was so great. “I have 15 people. They’re living in tents. They’re decimated. We have nothing.”
Grabbing water for a different reason was Jessie Foreman, a technician from Critter Car, a pet clinic outside Blountstown.
“We have about 30 animals housed there, people dropped their animals off with us before they left for the storm,” she said. “The front part of the building is caved in, collapsed, but the back half is secure. All the animals are safe.”
Streams of emergency vehicles rolled past Blountstown and headed south to Mexico Beach, Port St. Joe and other hard-hit areas. Lines of ambulances, utility trucks, tree services trucks, state fish and game officers in their marked trucks, and line-upon-line of white prison buses, made their way steadily toward the coast.
Search and rescue teams spread out along U.S. Route 98 Friday morning looking for survivors from Mexico Beach to Apalachicola. As each section was cleared a mark showing the area was checked was spray-painted in orange or green fluorescent color.
Clues about whether somebody might be home included vehicles in driveways and unlocked doors. Padlocks on the outside of doors, for instance, were a good tell that someone was not inside.
“We want to make sure we have everybody accounted for,” said Lt. Jeff Hansen of the Central Florida Urban Search and Rescue Task Force Four, who was leading a six-person crew through what remained of homes in the Beacon Hill area of Port St. Joe.
Kevin Yeskey, acting deputy assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, said four hospitals and 11 nursing homes in Florida were closed Friday, while all remain open in Georgia.
In Panama City, Bay Medical Sacred Heart Hospital, Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center and Fort Walton Medical Center have evacuated patients but are treating those who arrive in the emergency room, Yeskey said.
U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar declared an emergency in Georgia on Thursday following Florida earlier in the week to make payments more flexible to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, providers and suppliers.
When returning to damaged areas, Yeskey urged residents to consult with health and emergency authorities, and to wear boots, eye protection and gloves.
“In many places it’s not safe to go back to your residence,” Yeskey said.
The Coast Guard has rescued 129 people and one animal, and helped transport 142 nursing home patients to safe haven at Pensacola hospital. The Coast Guard deployed 17 cutters, nine fixed-wing and 24 rotary-wing aircraft for search and rescue, and to assess damage.
The Coast Guard continues to assess damage in Bay and Gulf counties, and urged residents not to board partially sunken vessels without assistance. The ports in Pensacola and Cedar Key reopened. But Panama City port remained closed in Florida as the Coast Guard worked to restore waterways.
The Red Cross has 1,000 trained disaster personnel heading to the area. The Salvation Army has 48 mobile feeding kitchens, which can each provide 1,500 meals per day.
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