MEXICO BEACH, Fla. — As Hurricane Michael slowly revealed the victims of its deadly march, search-and-rescue crews scoured remote wooded patches and a tiny gutted beach on Saturday, going door-to-door in the storm-crushed Florida Panhandle.They raced to reach the injured, the dead and those in need of help, hoping to chip away at a long…
MEXICO BEACH, Fla. — As Hurricane Michael slowly revealed the victims of its deadly march, search-and-rescue crews scoured remote wooded patches and a tiny gutted beach on Saturday, going door-to-door in the storm-crushed Florida Panhandle.
They raced to reach the injured, the dead and those in need of help, hoping to chip away at a long list of people reportedly missing in Florida after one of the most powerful storms in United States history. The death count is 18, but is likely to rise. CrowdSource Rescue, a Houston volunteer group, reported it had located 754 people.
More than 1,700 search-and-rescue personnel are working in affected areas. On Friday, Gov. Rick Scott authorized the Florida National Guard to activate up to 3,500 soldiers and airmen to assist with rescue efforts.
“We literally walk these streets and knock on every door,” said Scott Baxter, a member of Texas Task Force 1, an urban search-and-rescue unit. “That’s our best hope of finding someone who is injured or needs help.”
Under an unflinching Florida sun, the teams looked for the tiniest signs of life, cutting through brush, clearing debris, trudging through snake-infested grass.
In Mexico Beach on Saturday, near where the hurricane made landfall, members of South Florida Task Force 2, a search team from Miami, trudged through a pile of ruins. Someone smelled something: a scent that disaster veterans fear. One that suggests a pile of rubble has become a grave.
So the team got to work. First came Dexter, the 7-year-old golden retriever trained to sniff out human life, whom rescuers hope will bark. Then came Luna, the 6-year-old Belgian Malinois from the United States Border Patrol trained to sniff out human remains, whom rescuers hope will remain silent.
Luna clambered on the pieces of roof on the ground and into a puddle of seawater and over wooden shambles. The officers waited.
She did not bark. The site was clear.
“It’s not necessarily definitive,” warned Capt. Ignatius Carroll of Miami Fire Rescue. “But this is the most important part right here: the human remains dog.”
The rescuers moved on to the next house. Except in most cases there was no house, just a concrete slab and the crushing detritus of lives washed away by the sea. The place looked like the surface of the moon. Even experienced rescuers took photos on their iPhones in disbelief.
The team of 85 rescuers and four dogs arrived at daybreak on Thursday. This was their latest grim mission after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria last year, the Haiti earthquake in 2010, and ground zero after 9/11.
“At some point you have to switch from search-and-rescue to recovery mode, and that’s very difficult,” said Fire Chief Joseph Zahralban of Miami, before noting that Mexico Beach remains a search-and-rescue mission. For the workers, he said: “It’s very emotional. But they deal with it every day.”
Their mission was complicated by the combined devastation of the wind and storm surge, which lifted entire houses to new addresses.
Before the storm, local police officers had gone door to door naming each resident who planned to ignore evacuation orders and stay. In addition to their address and phone number, officers jotted down one more detail: each family’s next of kin.
Twenty-four hours before the storm, the number of people who intended to remain was 268 plus 10 children, Police Chief Anthony Kelly said. Then Hurricane Michael strengthened, and the number dropped “considerably lower,” he added. But by then, it was too late to update his tally.
Now, rescuers do not know how many of the 278 people listed are accounted for. The Miami team is devoting part of its effort to calling each contact number listed via satellite phone — in addition to checking on each residence.
The cleared homes get a green sticker. In some cases, the remaining structure has become so warped with saltwater that the sticker will not stick.
By midafternoon Saturday, the team had evacuated four families and their four dogs — and driven them to Panama City because they did not have any other means of transport. Two people required medical evacuations. Twenty people needed help getting out of their homes.
Chief Kelly said he had told residents who did leave that the city is not yet safe to return. Its streets — what is left of them — are hardly identifiable.
“It might take a year” to rebuild, he said. “It might take longer.”
His own roof blew off, and he lost the back of his house. He has been through a similar tragedy before: In 2005, he lived in Biloxi, Miss., during Hurricane Katrina. He and his wife spent a couple of weeks after that storm sleeping on their back porch. Now, after Michael, their porch here is gone, too.
“I’m receiving phone calls, getting passed information from family members trying to find loved ones here in town,” he said. “We know each person, in the majority of the houses. We have a strong foundation. It’s a very resilient town.”
About 30 miles north, 80 members of Texas Task Force 1 — including a 6-year-old Belgian Malinois named Rogue — headed north of the St. Andrews Bay on Saturday morning to rural stretches thick with errant power lines, snakes and pine trees that had crashed through the roofs of some houses.
Mostly firefighters, the team worked in a grid along streets and houses blocked by snapped trees, broken sheds and collapsed fences.
“We are facing places that are extremely dense and damaged, and in some places we will have to clear a path,” said Chuck Jones, the operations chief. “The mission is to reach every structure.”
The team canvassed about 50 square miles and reported one medical evacuation of a 90-year-old hospice patient living in a house without power. There were no deaths or injuries reported on Saturday afternoon.
The day before, the team reached 862 structures in Callaway, a suburb of Panama City. They visited apartment buildings, trailer parks and single-family homes — and spoke with 1,615 residents who confirmed they were staying. Three others were evacuated, including a woman who had broken a hip before the storm and a man with only two days’ worth of insulin left.
Eddie Mathison, a rescue manager and 21-year veteran whose son is a teammate, said one of the biggest challenges was sick victims who may be running low on medication. “The longer this goes on, the more danger or risk there is for people who are home that have medical issues,” he said. “We are working to quickly get to those people.”