After Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida Panhandle on its way north, officials in the state were left with the macabre task of figuring out the storm’s death toll – a question that may take some time to answer.
In Bay County, Florida, where Michael made landfall last week as a powerful Category 4 storm, the sheriff said Tuesday that 12 hurricane-related deaths had been confirmed there. That pushes the total number of deaths linked to the storm to at least 28 people across four states, with other deaths in Florida under investigation and officials still exploring some of the most ravaged areas.
Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford said the toll, while tragic, remains lower than what many had expected based on the sheer devastation left behind by Michael — and what some had anticipated given the hundreds of people in Mexico Beach, Florida, who said before the storm hit that they were not planning to evacuate.
“That can rise, but based on what we’re seeing on the ground, I don’t anticipate it rising — we don’t anticipate it rising dramatically” in Bay County, Ford said in an interview. “It’s nothing short of a miracle. We expected a large death toll.”
Ford said the medical examiner had determined the 12 deaths were all storm-related. While Ford did not have a breakdown of the deaths by location, he said at least a couple of people were killed in Mexico Beach, a small beach town demolished by the storm. Ford also said he believed many of the people in Mexico Beach who had pledged to ride out the storm “did flee at the last minute.”
“It was sobering to wake up … at 4 o’clock in the morning on Wednesday and see it was continuing to intensify and we were within the crosshairs and there was a narrowing cone of uncertainty,” he said.
It was unclear how many people were still missing as of Tuesday. Ford said he did not know exactly how many people were still believed to be missing in Bay County, where officials are still struggling with their communications in the storm’s wake; several could not be reached on Tuesday. CrowdSource Rescue, an organization in Texas that collects reports of missing people and relays them to first responders and volunteers on the ground, said it still had reports of more than 700 people missing by Tuesday afternoon.
Florida officials did not immediately provide a statewide number for how many people are still believed to be missing, though they noted that large numbers of people are often reported missing after disasters, particularly when cell service and electricity are both in short supply. The office of Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott reported that more than 138,000 people still lacked power by Tuesday afternoon, many of them Bay, Franklin and Jackson counties.
“One thing that complicates the missing person issue is a lot of that is the inability to communicate with each other and communicate with the outside world,” Ford said.
He was out Monday night and got a text message from a law enforcement officer in another county unable to reach an elderly uncle in Bay County. “I was able to go by and check and he was fine,” Ford said, “he just had no ability to communicate he was fine.”
Parts of Florida remained shattered by the hurricane. Seven school districts were “closed until further notice,” Scott’s office said Tuesday. In a statement, Scott also called on telecommunications companies to make clear how they would help get communications back online, and his office was sharply critical of the lingering outages affecting Floridians,
“Due to these outages, families are having a difficult time communicating with loved ones, first responders have faced challenges communicating and people are having difficulty getting their prescriptions filled because of the inability to connect to a network,” his office said.
The storm’s ultimate death toll still remained unclear nearly a week after the storm. Virginia officials reported six deaths there, while authorities reported three deaths in North carolina and two in Georgia.
Even as local authorities in Florida reported more deaths as of Tuesday, state officials had confirmed only two deaths, a figure that comes in part from the way storm-related fatalities are reported after disasters like hurricanes.
Death tolls after hurricanes are reported through the Medical Examiners Commission of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Counties send their death counts to the commission, which then sends that information to state officials to release these figures as the official tallies for Florida, said Stephen Nelson, chair of the commission.
“Our problem here is that it’s taken a while to even access those communities and to be able to talk to our folks on the ground,” Nelson, the medical examiner in a district that includes Polk County, Florida, said in an interview. He said in Bay County, the medical examiner’s office had no electricity as of Monday afternoon and was relying on a generator.
There are two kinds of deaths attributed to a storm, Nelson said. Direct deaths include people slain when they drive into flooded areas and drown or are inside buildings that are knocked over. Indirect deaths, which are typically more frequent, often occur during preparations and cleanup, including when someone slips and falls off of their roof or a person who dies from carbon monoxide poisoning produced by a generator.
The State Emergency Operations Center said a 94-year-old woman was killed in Clay County. Some local officials, like in Bay County, have reported figures that the state has not yet released. Rodney Andreasen, emergency management director for Jackson County, Fla., said his county had three deaths from the storm.
The Gadsden County Sheriff’s Office initially reported four “storm-related fatalities” last week, then said only one had been officially confirmed as a death from the hurricane and the other three were sent to the medical examiner’s office for further determination.
Law enforcement officials and first responders are still working to figure out if there are any dead or injured people unaccounted for, and Nelson warned that the number could rise across the state.
“As those search and recovery efforts take place, I would be surprised if our body count did not rise,” Nelson said. It is difficult for them to get into all of the impacted areas, Nelson said, so “the more that they’re able to get into … the more remote areas, I’d be very surprised if that death count does not go up.”
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Mark Berman