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9 days after Hurricane Michael, Florida’s death toll a mystery

State emergency officials say they can’t confirm some deaths because of damaged infrastructure and bad communication in Bay and Gulf counties.
The coastal township of Mexico Beach, population 1200, lay devastated on Thursday (10/11/18) after Hurricane Michael made landfall on Wednesday in the Florida Panhandle.
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times The coastal township of Mexico Beach, population 1200, lay devastated on Thursday (10/11/18) after Hurricane Michael made landfall on Wednesday in the Florida Panhandle.
Published Oct. 19, 2018
Updated Oct. 20, 2018

TALLAHASSEE — It's been nine days since Hurricane Michael slammed the Panhandle and decimated whole cities, from the coastal beach towns to the rural, wooded communities north. Since the Category 4 storm hit Oct. 10, at least 27 people have been confirmed dead in Florida and hundreds are still missing.

While the state has released updating counts of the dead, many of those victims remain largely nameless — so far, just a collection of ages, home counties and causes of death.

In Liberty County, a 78-year-old man died after complaining of chest pain and shortness of breath during the storm. In Clay County, a 94-year-old woman with acute liver failure died after she fell while being evacuated as the storm approached. A Gadsden County man, 71, died after he was unable to receive dialysis treatment.

Local authorities have in piecemeal begun releasing the identities of those killed during and after the storm, though state officials say they don't "receive information regarding the identity of storm victims," Division of Emergency Management spokesman Alberto Moscoso said.

State officials had initially said they could not release victims' names due to HIPAA concerns, though HIPAA — the federal law that protects identifiable health information about a deceased person for 50 years following the date of death — applies only to healthcare providers. State emergency officials also said they have not yet confirmed some deaths because of damaged infrastructure and bad communication in Bay and Gulf counties.

In Gulf County, where the state said that two people had been killed, the sheriff's office shared some names: Bill McConnell, 70, and Brad Price, 49.

McConnell’s body was found in the marsh behind his house on State Road 30a the Saturday after the storm, with his truck nearby. Sheriff’s deputies helped recover his body with an airboat, officials said, and contacted his family to notify them of his death.

Price, of Wewahitchka, was a county fire coordinator who was helping family members clear debris when a tree fell on his tractor, the sheriff's office said. He worked as a firefighter and paramedic in Bay County, and died at the scene.

The Gulf County firefighters wrote on their official Facebook page: "We love you, grieve with you, and are praying for all of you."

In Gadsden, at least four people have been reported dead by local officials, though the state has said so far that only two deaths are confirmed. According to the Tallahassee Democrat, one of those deaths was 44-year-old Steve Sweet of Gretna, who died in his wife's lap after a tree crashed into their home, though she survived.

Local officials have also confirmed deaths in Quincy and Greensboro, according to news reports.

In Calhoun County, one person was killed. In nearby Jackson County, three died, all from trees falling, local officials said.

Some names of the dead are still unknown, even to the counties. In Bay County, where the storm made landfall last week, 15 people perished. According to the Panama City News-Herald, a half-dozen people had yet to be identified by the local medical examiner as of Thursday.

Officials have not yet released details on the dead but told news outlets that at least two were killed in Mexico Beach, where many homes were reduced to piles of wood and concrete. Among them was 79-year-old Agnes Vicari, whose body was pulled from the rubble of her home on 38th Street, her niece Joanne Garone Behnke confirmed.

Local authorities also released victims' names after Hurricane Irma, when Hollywood police identified 12 people who died at a sweltering nursing home there. Those deaths became part of a homicide investigation focused on what happened at the facility.

Across all four states hit by Michael, at least 35 people are reported dead.

State emergency officials said it's hard to track deaths in areas like Bay and Gulf Counties, because many of the medical examiners' officers were without power or water, and cell service remains limited in those areas.

Although the state's three-part search-and-rescue mission is "100 percent complete," thousands of people had been informally reported missing. State officials have said that number represents calls have been coming in to local officials and organizations like the Red Cross.

Sherri Matteson, who lives in a small community in Washington County, said she fears her neighbors may be dead. Matteson, who is homebound due to illness, says many of her neighbors are elderly and were without power for about a week. She said she hasn't seen much aid come to her community, which is close to Chipley but far enough that people won't want to risk wasting gas on the drive to a distribution center.

"My neighbors could be laying in their homes, dead," she said. "No one is coming around and checking on people. It's even more isolated here than it was before."

At a briefing last week, it was announced that some people reported missing were found in hospitals and shelters. Although the official search-and-rescue missions are complete, emergency officials said other task forces and ambulance teams will remain on hand for other search efforts.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report, as did material from the Associated Press.