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Hurricane Michael update: hardest-hit areas still largely without power as death toll expected to rise

The death toll confirmed by Florida state and local officials now stands at nine.

TALLAHASSEE —As yet another day of recovery was under way Sunday, there were signs that a long slog lay ahead for those towns in Hurricane Michael's direct  path.

Just under 183,000 Floridians remained without power on Sunday evening. But as this number has decreased from its peak of about 400,000, the progress has remained concentrated in the lesser-hit areas like Tallahassee's Leon County while the hardest-hit counties in the Panhandle remained largely in the dark.

State emergency officials said it will take at least five more days to see progress in these stricken areas, but that estimate could be highly optimistic for places where buildings were reduced to rubble.

A screen grab of the state’s power outages dashboard that displays the percentage of people in each county without power.
A screen grab of the state’s power outages dashboard that displays the percentage of people in each county without power.

Florida's death toll confirmed by officials stood at nine on Sunday, after the Associated Press reported that a body had been uncovered in Mexico Beach. Three people have been confirmed dead in Jackson County, four in Gadsden County and one in Clay County.

The total number of people killed by this storm is expected to rise as the hardest-hit towns, Mexico Beach and Panama City, begin to use dogs and listening devices to search through the wreckage. Some reports indicate that has already begun, though state emergency officials have said those "deep" searches haven't started yet in earnest.

Many did not evacuate in places like Mexico Beach in the days before the storm, and Hurricane Michael rapidly intensified to Category 4 the night before it made landfall, leaving little time for those residents to change plans.

Both Bay and Gulf counties still have very limited cell phone service, hindering survivors' abilities to look for their thousands of missing family members.

Gov. Rick Scott said Sunday that the lack of cell service has made it difficult to help people, particularly in Bay County.

"We've put a lot of food and water out all across the state," Scott said. "Well, if you have no internet and you have no cellphone, it's hard to get the information out. And AT&T is working there, but Verizon is not."

While the number of people in shelters starts to decline for now, the state has been telling local officials to prep for major increases of shelter populations as people return to their homes only to find they're no longer standing.

On Sunday, state emergency officials said a major focus was ensuring people in shelters would be comfortable, by setting up temporary showers, laundry trailers, portable toilets, electronics charging stations and board games for children.

The state was also in the planning stages of setting up a long-term field hospital somewhere in the Panhandle, a region that already had scarce medical infrastructure before the storm significantly damaged several hospitals — three in Panama City alone. Officials said they expect the temporary hospital to be able to offer a full range of medical services for a year.

The Florida Department of Corrections officially confirmed Sunday that the Gulf Correctional Institution, a state prison in Wewahitchka, has been completely evacuated, including its 2,600 inmates and staff. Three-hundred and five inmates from the Calhoun Correctional Institution were also relocated following the storm.

Both facilities sustained "significant damage to roofs and security infrastructure," according to a press release, which adds that no one was injured. In total, four correctional facilities are now closed until "further damage assessment," the department said.

Scott toured the damage in Mexico Beach, Panama City, Bristol and Blountstown from the ground Sunday, alongside FEMA director Brock Long. President Donald Trump is also expected to visit the impacted area in the coming days.

Long said it was "some of the worst damage I've seen in my career."

"We've got a long way to go," he said. "The hardest mission is going to be not just life-sustaining, getting people out of shelters into more suitable living conditions, but ultimately, there's going to be a tough long-term housing mission that lies ahead, that's going to take many months."