Published 1:46 PM EDT Oct 13, 2018
PANAMA CITY, Fla. - While crews continued the search Saturday for thousands of people reported missing after Hurricane Michael ravaged Florida's Panhandle, those devastated by the storm were left scrambling for food and water – trying to put the pieces of their lives back together.
The death toll from the monstrous storm has risen almost daily as crews made their way into some of the areas hit hardest. As of Friday evening, it had risen again to 17, according to CNN and Reuters.
Eight people have died in Florida, five in Virginia, three in North Carolina and one in Georgia, the news outlets reported.
By some estimates, nearly 300 people stayed behind, ignoring evacuation pleas, as the storm rolled ashore as a monster Category 4. Officials have gotten thousands of missing people reports but with network outages, it's been a tough job determining whether some of the missing are simply unable to communicate with loved ones.
Long lines have formed at distribution centers where authorities are giving out food and water to those in need. The National Guard helped Saturday to man a station at Lucille Moore Elementary School in Panama City, Florida.
The troops, out of Sanford, Florida set up about a dozen pallets of bottled water early Saturday. But more than delivering supplies, the group of about 97 soldiers was trying to deliver hope.
Grateful families smiled, waved and thanked the soldiers as they loaded them up with supplies, and soldiers smiled, waved back and offered words of encouragement.
“Smiles are contagious,” 2nd Lt. Scott Mandelberg explained.
He said the company had arrived Wednesday and spent the last few days clearing roadways and distributing needed items. He said even the most veteran soldiers could only marvel at the damage.
“We’ve got guys who have been in the Florida National Guard 10-15 years, and even they recognize the devastation,” Mandelberg said.
Still, he said the company was trained, prepared and eager to assist — ready to stay as long as they were needed.
“We are also Floridians, and you are our neighbors,” Mandelberg said on the company’s behalf. “We are committed to protecting the lives and property of our citizens and guests.”
David Passey, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said FEMA had supplied more than 700,000 meals and more than 1 million liters of water.
He said in the short term, the goal is to “get the debris removed from the area so emergency food and water can get in and the local supply chain – grocery stores, hardware stores – can get back in and do their thing.”
Becca Aldridge and her girls, 7-year-old Cesaleigh and 5-year-old Cydaleigh, crossed a busy 11th Avenue, toting plastic foam boxes filled with pie from a Salvation Army food truck parked at the damaged middle school across the street.
It was the young girls' first hot meal in days, she said.
The family rode out the hurricane in their beachside home. The house lost its roof, flooding occupants and contents with rain and sea water.
They're still in the home, despite the dampness and fast-growing mold, for the same reason they didn't leave ahead of the storm. "We have no money," Aldridge said.
Many felt the same sense of hopelessness. Mahbubur Rahman and his wife, Farzana Akter, opened the doors to their new convenience store on Monday.
On Tuesday, they closed them. On Wednesday, they lost everything.
Standing behind the counter of the convenience store in Panama City — newly christened Stop N' Go Jr. — Rahman watched Saturday as his family and employees swept up shards of broken glass and ceiling tile.
A mountain of candy, still in its wrappers, soaked through and inedible, sat in a shaft of sunlight pouring through a large hole in the ceiling, the only light in the otherwise dark store.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," he said again, holding back tears. "I don't have anything left."
Even those who escaped destruction are without power and running water for the foreseeable future.
Power and cellphone service are starting to be restored in parts of Florida but state emergency management officials reported Saturday that nearly 264,000 customers remain without electricity in the state.
They also said that 80 percent of cellphone service has been restored throughout the region hit by Hurricane Michael. But the numbers remain high in the hardest-hit areas.
Hayes reported from Washington, D.C.; Robinson and Rogers reported from Panama City, Florida. Contributing: Associated Press