Government officials in Florida were racing to deliver aid as desperation grew in and around Panama City. Long lines formed for gas and food, and across the battered coastline, those who were poor, trapped and isolated sent out pleas for help.
PANAMA CITY, Fla. — It was two days after Hurricane Michael, and Eddie Foster was pushing his mother in a wheelchair down a smashed street, his face creased with a concentrated dose of the frustration and fear that has afflicted much of the Florida Panhandle since the storm turned its coast to rubble.
He was in a working-class neighborhood called Millville, where many residents said they were becoming desperate for even basic necessities. Foster, 60, and his 99-year-old mother had no car, no electricity. The food had spoiled in his refrigerator. The storm had ripped off large sections of his roof. He had no working plumbing. No water to drink. And as of Friday afternoon, he had seen no sign of government help.
“What can I do?” he said. “I’m not angry. I just want some help.”
This was the problem government officials were racing to solve Friday, as desperation grew in and around Panama City under a burning sun. Long lines formed for gas and food, and across the battered coastline, those who were poor, trapped and isolated sent out pleas for help.
It would take time to reach everyone. Yet the Panama City area, one of those hit hardest by Hurricane Michael, grew into a whirring hive of activity on Friday, as box trucks, military personnel and rescue and aid workers flowed in from surrounding counties and states, struggling to fix communications and electrical systems that officials said were almost demolished.
The death toll from the Category 4 storm that hit Wednesday rose to at least 16, stretching as far north as Virginia, where five people died, and it was expected to climb higher as search-and-rescue crews fanned out through rubble that in some cases spanned entire blocks. The toll also included the potential of millions of dollars in damage to aircraft, which were left behind during the storm at Tyndall Air Force Base.
“We’re all being kind — got it?”
For those waiting for relief supplies or the ability to return to their homes, Brock Long, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator, counseled patience. “Bottom line, it was one of the most powerful storms the country has seen since 1851,” he said. “It’s going to be a long time before they can get back.”
In Panama City, people pitched in when they could. Some opened stores that lacked electricity: A Sonny’s barbecue restaurant fired up its smokers in the parking lot, feeding many who gathered in a line that was at least 100 grateful residents long.
But in a city of unusable toilets and iffy cellular service — where nearly every street seemed like a set from a disaster movie — tensions were occasionally high as people waited for their first hot meal since Tuesday night. Before noon, a shouting match erupted between two men waiting for their barbecue plates. “Stop it!” a server admonished them at the top of his lungs. “Now we’re all being kind — got it?”
But the line was also full of hugs and tearful reunions, and across the broken region, residents exhibited selflessness and sweat as they began the long slog of putting it all back together.
Crews had been able to clear some of the power lines and fallen trees from the main roads of Panama City, but many other areas were still choked with a riot of debris and limbs. Search-and-rescue teams continued to check neighborhoods in coastal Bay County. Mark Bowen, the county’s emergency-services chief, said that officials had estimates of the dead, but would not release them until the work was done.
“We have missing people, OK?” he said. “Are they missing because their loved ones can’t contact them, or are they missing because they perished in the storm? We just don’t know that.”
Shellshocked residents continued to stream from their homes, mostly focused on the first steps of rebuilding — finding help, from government assistance to shelters. But for some, the search proved frustrating: Solid answers were scarce, particularly in remote parts of the Panhandle. Some turned to word-of-mouth, and that was equally unreliable.
“I just keep looking for steeples and long lines, but I haven’t found much so far,” said Lynette Cordeno, 54, a retired Army sergeant who hoped to find a meal service somewhere. “We are walking around with no internet, no cell service, no way to even ask for help.”
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Cordeno had gathered with others outside the Mr. Mart convenience store in nearby Callaway, one of many stores big and small that were rumored to be open Friday. Some came barefoot and some in storm-battered cars. They came for room-temperature water and beer, charcoal and candy — and critical information.
Military base obliterated
Tyndall Air Force Base took such a beating that Col. Brian Laidlaw told the 3,600 men and women stationed on the base not to come back. Many of the 600 families that live there had followed orders to pack what they could in a single suitcase as they were evacuated before the storm.
The hurricane’s eyewall passed directly overhead, severely damaging nearly every building and leaving many a complete loss.
Among the casualties: an unknown number of F-22 stealth fighters, each of which costs $339 million, left behind when the base was evacuated.
Tyndall had 55 F-22 fighters, according to a base briefing. Earlier this week, a spokeswoman for Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, said 33 of Tyndall’s fighters had arrived for safekeeping. It is unclear if the other 22 fighters are still on the damaged base.
An Air Force spokeswoman, Maj. Malinda Singleton, acknowledged Friday that some aircraft at the base had been damaged but would not confirm they were F-22s.
Photos and video from the wreckage of the base, where hangars were shredded, showed the distinctive contours of the stealth fighter’s squared tail fins and angled vertical stabilizers jumbled in the wreckage of the base’s largest building, Hangar 5.
Officials in Panama City insisted throughout the day that crucial short-term help would soon arrive, even though the logistics, given the blocked roads and failed communications systems, were daunting. By afternoon, they had released a list of nine Bay County feeding sites.
Cell service unreliable
Some local officials were worried about the possibility of social unrest in the areas where residents had not stocked up with multiple days’ worth of supplies. A short drive from Foster’s home, looting had been seen Thursday at a half-wrecked dollar store, and while some people came for things they wanted, most had come for things they needed — drinks and food.
On Friday, in a sign of the change that could soon roll out across the city, the store was being guarded by military personnel in a pair of Humvees.
Officials said that the Red Cross and religious volunteers were preparing feeding programs. The Florida National Guard was moving through neighborhoods with food and water. Soon, officials said, the region would be dotted with canteens and “pods” to allow people to drive up for food and water.
In the meantime, with cell service and internet hovering between spotty and nonexistent, residents navigated the ruined landscape with what scraps of information they could. Charlotte Jordan, 68, said she heard about the free barbecue from her daughter, who called her from Tampa.
Elsewhere in line, Tracey Simmons, 42, was angrier. “They’re doing us like they did New Orleans,” she said. Simmons, an educator, said she was worried that poorer residents would eventually be moved out, much as they were after Hurricane Katrina. For the time being, she was frustrated by the complicated game of survival that was playing out.
“We know that people are coming,” she said of relief crews, “but where are they?”