Published 5:29 PM EDT Oct 17, 2018
One by one, residents of Mexico Beach, one of the hardest-hit areas by Hurricane Michael, began returning home Wednesday for their first wrenching look at the devastation that has leveled the Florida Panhandle town of 1,000 people.
Mexico Beach was ground zero for Michael when the storm roared ashore last Wednesday, packing 155 mph winds and bringing a catastrophic storm surge. It was the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in nearly 50 years.
Residents who rode out the storm at home have been in Mexico Beach since Michael hit, but authorities told others to stay away for a week after the Category 4 storm ravaged the beach town.
To many of those who made the trek, the devastating impact of the storm was shocking.
Nancy Register sobbed uncontrollably after finding no trace of the large camper where she had lived with her husband, Taylor. She was particularly distraught over the loss of a black-and-white photo of her mother, who died of cancer.
Taylor Register found little but a stool and a keepsake rock given to him by a friend 40 years ago.
Nearby, Kentucky residents Ron and Lanie Eden sifted the remains of the small beach house where they have stayed with their children each October for years.
Officials on Wednesday confirmed seven more fatalities in Florida, including at least three in Bay County, home to Mexico Beach and Panama city. That brings the death toll in Florida to 23. That’s in addition to at least 10 deaths from the storm elsewhere across the South.
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Bay County also includes Tyndall Air Force Base, Panama City and Lynn Haven, all of which were heavily damaged.
Task forces in all of the counties impacted by Michael have identified 15,876 single residences that have been damaged and 4,240 single residences that have been destroyed.
State emergency management officials said about 124,500 customers across the Florida Panhandle were still without power Wednesday morning and 1,157 remained in shelters.
Search and rescue teams have finished their first round of searches and have started their second round in the hard-hit cities of Panama City, Callaway, Lynn Haven and Mexico Beach, Sheriff Tommy Ford said.
Rescuers have evacuated 1,602 people to temporary shelters and have confirmed that 16,678 people are safe to shelter in place, according to the latest official reports.
The medical examiner’s office In Panama City was a hub of activity this week, and National Guard troops are stationed outside ready to assist. A fuel truck was refueling the generator to ensure power remained throughout the building.
One glimmer of hope: Cellphone service has begun returning to the stricken zone.
Mexico Beach Mayor Cathey had a one-word exclamation when his Verizon phone started working for the first time in nearly a week: “Hallelujah!”
Verizon service also resumed in Panama City, where residents haven’t been able to contact loved ones or call for help. The telecommunications giant later announced it would give a three-month credit to every Verizon customer in Bay and Gulf counties.
Gov. Rick Scott had been criticizing phone companies over what he called a slow restoration of service.
Ford said Tuesday that he could not give out an accurate number of missing people.
"One thing that's hampering our ability to get an accurate number on that is communications," Ford said. "No one has communications with one another. It's a very difficult situation with that."
Bay County Sheriff’s Maj. Jimmy Stanford said deputies have arrested about 10 looters each night since the storm hit. In some parts of the county, residents have spray-painted signs warning that “looters will be shot.”
Callaway resident Victoria Smith told the Panama City News Herald that thieves came into her townhome while she and her four children were sleeping with the front door open to allow a breeze inside.
“I must’ve been so exhausted from everything in the past days I didn’t even hear them come in,” Smith said. “They just snatched my purse out of my hands and ran. ... It was all we had.”
Often the looters have been armed, Stanford said.
“Most of our officers lost their homes, have been working 16- to 18-hour shifts with no sleep, no shower, and now they’re encountering armed individuals,” he said. “It’s a stressful time for everyone in Bay County.”
Little reports for the Pensacola News Journal. Stanglin reports from McLean, Va. Contributing: Associated Press