Thousands of people reported missing after Hurricane Michael

The Panhandle is largely populated by small towns, spread out across dense, forested areas, which has only worsened more post-disaster communications problems when cell phone towers and internet services go out. Locating people was a top priority for emergency crews on Friday.
Scattered debris and damage can be seen after Hurricane Michael, a category four, slammed into homes in Shell Point Beach on Thursday. [BRONTE WITTPENN | Tampa Bay Times]
Scattered debris and damage can be seen after Hurricane Michael, a category four, slammed into homes in Shell Point Beach on Thursday. [BRONTE WITTPENN | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Oct. 12, 2018|Updated Oct. 14, 2018

TALLAHASSEE — Thousands of people were informally reported missing to local authorities, the Red Cross and the state, as people searched for friends and relatives during the second day after Hurricane Michael ravaged Florida's Panhandle.

Officials said that a similar number of people were reported missing after Hurricane Irma struck the the Keys last year.

But surveying Michael's path of destruction poses challenges. The Panhandle is largely populated by small towns, spread across dense, forested areas, an isolated geography that exacerbates post-disaster communications problems when cell phone towers and internet services go out.

RELATED: 'We're broken here.' Mexico Beach reels in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael 

Alan Harris, Seminole County Emergency Management Director, told the state Emergency Operations Center during a Friday morning briefing that Florida was, so far, refraining from setting up a temporary mortuary — a sign that mass casualties, at least for now, have not been found.

"Thank God we're not seeing that as a critical need," Harris said. "That's actually some great news. We hope that news continues."

By late Friday, Florida's official death toll stood at seven — but that only accounted for two counties, neither of which include Panama City or Mexico Beach. Four people died in Gadsden County, according to local officials there. On Friday, three more deaths were confirmed in Jackson County by the sheriff office.

GROUND ZERO: See the damage Hurricane Michael inflicted on Mexico Beach

Still, Gov. Rick Scott told reporters it was too early to have a precise count.
"I don't think we know enough," he said. "We've got to finish search and rescue. The other thing on top of that, a lot of people get hurt afterwards.

That's why we talk about: Make sure you know how to use generator. Don't put it inside your house. Be careful with all the chain saws … and don't touch downed power lines."

As of Friday afternoon, state emergency officials said first responders like firefighters, paramedics and nurses were searching the affected area in the Panhandle. During this "primary" search, officials typically knock on doors. About 25,000 structures had been searched by late Friday.

A more intensive "secondary" search was not yet underway Friday, which will include sifting through rubble to find additional people who are injured or have died. Once begun, that search will take days, if not weeks, officials said.

They expect the number of missing to go down most quickly when power and communications are restored, allowing people to more easily locate their loved ones.

Food and water distribution improved Friday, as pallets of supplies made their way to the coast on the roads that have been cleared of debris.

Helicopters were needed to deliver supplies to the most remote areas like St. George Island, Apalachicola and Port St. Joe, state officials said.

There are no longer any "widespread" fuel outages, Scott said. He visited both Mexico Beach and Marianna with Florida National Guard troops on Friday, in addition to getting an aerial view of the damage to Gulf and Jackson counties.

While some in the lesser-hit areas, like Tallahassee, started to get their power back on Thursday, just under 330,000 people remained without power in the Panhandle Friday evening.

30 IMAGES: The Times eyewitness account to damage inflicted by Hurricane Michael after landfall

"The bottom line is there is a significant amount of damage in many of those areas," said Danny Kilcollins, infrastructure branch director for the state's emergency center. "These numbers are probably not going to go down very quickly at this point."

Hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the Panhandle have also continued to evacuate their patients, whose needs have become a priority since 12 people died in Broward County's Hollywood Hills nursing home during Hurricane Irma.

But because Hurricane Michael hit in October, and temperatures in north Florida have dropped in recent days with overnight lows in the 50s, Scott said he now wanted to make sure patients and nursing home residents are staying warm.

"We have shelters open (and) as long as there's a need they're going to stay open," he said. "We'll make sure we provide whatever is necessary. If it's to keep people warm, we'll keep people warm."

As roads were cleared inland, access was opened to the town of Chattahoochee and Florida State Hospital, the largest state-run psychiatric facility. Damage to the hospital appeared to be limited to a water main break caused by an uprooted tree and some broken windows. There were other downed trees on the hospital campus.

(Editor's note: This story has been updated. Due to incorrect information provided to the Tampa Bay Times, an earlier version of this story mischaracterized the status of the initial search where first responders go door-to-door, looking for missing people in the area affected by Hurricane Michael. As of Sunday, that first phase was about 65 percent completed.

Times/Herald staff writer Elizabeth Koh contributed to this story.