MEXICO BEACH, Fla. — Crews with backhoes and other heavy equipment scooped up splintered boards, broken glass, chunks of asphalt and other debris in hurricane-flattened Mexico Beach on Sunday as the mayor held out hope for the 250 or so residents who may have tried to ride out the storm.
The death toll from Michael’s destructive march from Florida to Virginia stood at 17, with just one confirmed death so far in this Florida Panhandle town of about 1,000 people that took a direct hit from the hurricane and its 155 mph winds last week.
Crews worked to clear building debris along with the rubble from a collapsed section of the beachfront highway.
Mayor Al Cathey estimated 250 residents stayed behind when the hurricane struck, and he said he remained hopeful about their fate. He said search-and-rescue teams in the beach town had already combed areas with the worst damage.
“If we lose only one life, to me that’s going to be a miracle,” Cathey said.
He said enough food and water had been brought in for the residents who remain. Even some cellphone service had returned to the devastated community.
President Donald Trump plans to visit Florida and Georgia on Monday to see damage.
Four days after the storm struck, a large swath of the Panhandle was suffering, from little beach towns to the larger Panama City to rural communities miles from where the hurricane came ashore.
“There are a lot of inland areas, some of these poor rural counties to the north of there. These counties took a devastating hit,” Sen. Marco Rubio said on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”
“And we are talking about poor people, many of them are older, miles from each other, isolated in many cases from roads, including some dirt roads that are cut off right now. We haven’t been able to reach those people in a number of days.”
Some victims stranded by the storm managed to summon relief by using logs to spell out “HELP” on the ground, officials in Bay County, which includes Mexico Beach, said in a Facebook post Sunday. Official said someone from another county was using a mapping app, noticed the distress message and contacted authorities.
No details were released on who was stranded and what sort of help was needed.
For the few residents remaining in Mexico Beach, conditions were treacherous.
Steve Lonigan was outside his home, talking with neighbor Jim Ostman, when a loud cracking sound made both men jump. It was just a small wooden block shifting in the sand beneath the weight of the front end of Lonigan’s camper trailer.
“All this stuff is just dangerous,” Ostman said, glancing at the destruction all around. “It’s so unstable.”
Lonigan and his wife returned Sunday after evacuating to Georgia. Seawater surged into his home, leaving a soggy mess of mud and leaves, even though the house stands 12 feet above ground on concrete blocks.
The single-story house had broken windows, and part of its roof and front steps were missing. Lonigan used a ladder to climb inside.
“We’ve got a lot more left than other people,” he said. “We were able to sleep in the bedroom last night.”
In hard-hit Panama City, pastor John Blount held Sunday services at St. Andrew United Methodist Church outdoors, in front of a wall demolished by the storm. Afterward, the church held a large cookout for the storm-weary.
Untold numbers of people across the region have damaged homes and no power and don’t have the means to relocate, either to a new or temporary place.
More roads were becoming passable as crews cleared trees and power lines, but traffic lights remained out and there were long lines at the few open gas stations.
Florida officials evacuated nearly 3,000 inmates from two hurricane-damaged prisons — the Gulf Correctional Institution and Annex and Calhoun Correctional Institution. They had damage to the roof and the infrastructure critical for security, authorities said. No inmates or staff members were injured.
Contributors in Florida include Associated Press writers Russ Bynum in Mexico Beach, Brendan Farrington in Panama City, Gary Fineout in Tallahassee and AP Photographer Gerald Herbert in Panama City.