More than a week after Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle, residents were returning to their homes to try to piece together lives from rubble as the overall death toll from all the locations affected by the storm rose to at least 30.
Authorities in Florida on Thursday confirmed 20 deaths related to the storm, which retained hurricane-force winds as far inland as southern Georgia, and also affected the Carolinas and Virginia. Six deaths were reported in Virginia, mostly from flash flooding. North Carolina had three deaths, and Georgia had one.
In storm-ravaged Mexico Beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast, residents were allowed to return home for the first time Wednesday, finding pieces of their lives scattered across the sand and a community altered.
Across the region, stunned residents continued picking up the pieces on Thursday, as many remained without electricity. Nancy Register sobbed uncontrollably after finding no trace of the large camper where she’d lived with her husband. She was particularly distraught over the loss of an old, black-and-white photo of her mother, who died of cancer.
Husband Taylor Register said he found nothing but a stool that he uses for cutting his hair, a hose and a keepsake rock that was given to him by a friend 40 years ago.
“That’s my belongings,” he said, pointing to a small pile beside his red pickup truck. Choking up, he said: “I appreciate G-d humbling me. Everybody needs it.”
Just up the road, tears ran down Lanie Eden’s face as she and husband Ron Eden sifted through sand in search of items they left before evacuating from the small beach house they’ve rented each October for years. They didn’t find much — just a large pack of toilet paper that somehow stayed dry and a son’s camp chair.
The Edens, who are from Fort Knox, Kentucky, and are temporarily staying in Alabama, were stunned to see mountains of debris and countless destroyed buildings as they drove into town for the first time. In a state of condominium towers, Mexico Beach was one of the few remaining places with small houses and a 1950s feel.
“Basically, we lost ‘old Florida.’ It’s all gone,” said Lanie Eden.
Residents among the community of about 1,200 people who rode out the storm at home have been in Mexico Beach since Michael hit. But officials used the city’s social media page to tell others to stay away for a week after the Category 4 storm ravaged the beach town with winds and a strong storm surge.
In the meantime, in many areas devastated by the hurricane, law enforcement officials are battling looting of homes and businesses.
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.”
Panama City resident Wes Allen said looters have been a constant problem at the badly damaged motel where he is staying with his wife and three children. Residents have formed a nighttime patrol to keep an eye out for thieves.
“We’ve got looters breaking in and stealing whatever they can,” he said. Allen said he hasn’t reported the thefts to police because authorities seem so busy with other things.
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.”
In Mexico Beach, what had been a town of about 1,200, residents don’t expect power or anything else anytime soon.
Carlton Hundley, 25, returned to the house he rented to find nothing but a long pile of shattered wood. What few possessions he found, including one of his shoes, were scattered across the ground.
“I knew it was bad, I’d already seen the pictures. But it’s a lot more than I thought,” he said.
Roxie Cline, 65, was overcome with emotion as she tried to describe the destruction in Mexico Beach, where she and her husband had lived for three years.
“I can’t, I can’t,” she said, tearing up. “It’s devastating. You lose everything. Everybody has.”