By Rod Nickel
MEXICO BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) – Search and rescue volunteers have located hundreds of people reported missing in the U.S. Southeast after Hurricane Michael tore through their Florida Panhandle communities, but the death toll of at least 18 was expected to rise.
Rescue crews heard cries for help and cut into a mobile home crumpled by the storm in Panama City, freeing survivors who had been trapped inside for two days, Matthew Marchetti, co-founder of the Houston-based CrowdSource Rescue, said on Saturday.
In door-to-door searches, teams consisting mostly of off-duty police officers and firefighters have found more than 520 of the 2,100 people reported missing since Michael crashed ashore near Mexico Beach, Florida, on Wednesday as one of the most powerful storms in U.S. history.
“We expect that number to go up dramatically today,” Marchetti said, adding hopes were raised by an influx of volunteers on the weekend and the restoration of power in some areas.
“Volunteers are working side-by-side with first responders. They are cutting holes in roofs. They try to take a picture so we can call the family and tell them we made contact,” he said.
But as roads were cleared to allow wider searches, the death toll was expected to mount. As of early Saturday, authorities were reporting at least 18 deaths in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.
Rescue teams, hampered by power and telephone outages, used cadaver dogs, drones and heavy equipment to hunt for people in the rubble.
In Callaway, Florida, an especially hard-hit town, Catholic Christians barbecued hamburgers and Scientologists handed out water.
“I’m homeless,” said nursing assistant Carla Covington, 45, who is caring for her mother and two children after their house was destroyed by falling trees.
She said it felt good to receive comfort, but was also hard.
“I’m used to helping people and not asking for help,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion.
The tropical storm, which grew in less than two days into a Category 4 hurricane, tore apart entire neighborhoods.
More than 1,700 search and rescue workers were deployed, including seven swift-water rescue teams and nearly 300 ambulances, Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office said.
Power and phone service were being slowly restored, with about 236,000 homes and businesses still without power in North Carolina, down from a peak of more than 600,000, said spokesman Keith Acree of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.
It could be weeks before power is restored to the most damaged parts of Florida.
(Reporting by Rod Nickel; Additional reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in Port St. Joe, Florida, Barbara Goldberg in New York, and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Clelia Oziel and Daniel Wallis)