Restored phones help rescuers find missing after Florida hurricane

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla.: Rescue workers and volunteers searched on Tuesday for scores of people still unaccounted for in the Florida Panhandle as residents rejoiced at restored phone services and portable toilets after Hurricane Michael devastated the area last week.

At least 19 deaths in four states have been blamed on Michael, which made landfall on Wednesday as one of the most powerful storms on record to hit the continental United States.

That number could reach 30 as the Bay County Sheriff’s Office reported 12 deaths. It was not clear if that figure included two deaths previously reported in Mexico Beach in that county.

Teams from the volunteer rescue organisation CrowdSource Rescue were steadily making contact with people flagged by friends and relatives in the Panhandle disaster zone, according to Matthew Marchetti, co-founder of the Houston-based group. Volunteers still had not reached more than 1,135 people on Tuesday morning, down from over 2,100 at one point.

As cellphone service returned, the number of people unaccounted for in Mexico Beach, one of the hardest-hit towns, dropped to three, said Rex Putnal, a city councillor. A day earlier, it was more than 30.

"Hopefully, they left and we’ll find them safe somewhere," he said, before heading to a clean-up effort where workers awaited the arrival of some overdue portable toilets.

"This type of living wears on you," Putnal said. "This is about my fifth day and I’m just not used to washing clothes in a tub with no washer and dryer and eating only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."

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The mayor of the town of about 1,200 residents, which took a direct hit from the hurricane, said a second person, a woman, was found dead on Monday afternoon.

Rescue workers were using dogs to find any bodies that might be buried under the debris.

More than 200,000 people remained without power in the U.S. Southeast, with residents of battered coastal towns forced to cook on fires and barbecue grills.

At least 80 percent of customers in three mainly rural Panhandle counties were without electricity on Tuesday. Officials said it could be weeks before power returns to some.

CAMPING IN TENTS

Countless residents in the region’s backcountry have struggled for days without electricity, running water or sanitation, awaiting help from authorities. Some have been camping in tents with the belongings they were able to salvage.

"I’m staying out here to try to keep away looters, to try to save what I can save," said Bernard Sutton, a 64-year-old cancer patient, who has been living out of a tent and broken-down minivan.

Downed trees hampered access to those stranded by the storm.

The state government is distributing ice, water and about 3 million ready-to-eat meals, according to Governor Rick Scott’s office.

Water supply was restored to some residents in Panama City on Monday but Bay County officials said it was not yet safe to drink.

Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle Wednesday with top sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (250 km per hour). The winds and storm surge caused US$6 billion to US$10 billion in insured losses, risk modeller AIR Worldwide said. Those figures exclude uninsured property or losses paid out by the National Flood Insurance Program, AIR Worldwide said.

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U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump visited the storm-affected areas on Monday, arriving by helicopter from Eglin Air Force Base about 100 miles (160 km) to the west.

They distributed bottles of water at an aid centre in Lynn Haven, a city of about 18,500 people near Panama City in northwestern Florida.

(Reporting by Brian Snyder; Additional reporting by Terray Sylvester in Florida, Bernie Woodall in Florida, Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, Andrew Hay in New Mexico, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Jonathan Allen and Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Bernadette Baum and David Gregorio)