As residents pick up the pieces after Hurricane Michael and teams comb through rubble in search of survivors, authorities say it could be weeks or months before a sense of normalcy returns to storm-ravaged Florida.
Thousands of law enforcement officers, firefighters, power crews, National Guard troops, and volunteers have descended on Florida’s Panhandle and Big Bend to help those affected by the monster storm, officials said.
Residents have been waiting in long lines to collect bottled water and ready-to-eat meals (MREs) at several distribution centers. Helicopters are also airdropping food and water to remote areas.
But the widespread destruction has many people living in dire conditions and some have already resorted to looting.
“This (storm) hit so hard and so fast that the different aspects of human nature is going to come out, and people are going to do anything to survive,” Panama City resident Christopher Donahue told CNN affiliate WEAR-TV.
Authorities were also investigating reports of a fatal shooting in Panama City, WEAR reported.
The future of thousands of students also remains unclear.
“It’s not going to be a normal school year. There’s nothing normal about where we are right now,” Bay District Schools Superintendent Bill Husfelt told CNN affiliate WMBB.
With the majority of its 26,000 students displaced and many schools deemed not safe because of the damage, officials are discussing alternative ways to get students back to the classroom or provide psychological aid for them.
“Read to the kids, calm them down, they’ve been scared. Adults have been scared but imagine those little hearts. Tell them how brave they’ve been,” Husfelt added.
As of Sunday, more than 435,000 customers are still without power in seven states from Florida to Virginia. The death toll remains at 18 but authorities say it could continue climbing.
Residents could still be trapped
Hundreds of calls from people around the country looking for their relatives continue piling up as emergency crews attempt to reach the most remote areas.
Crews are working tirelessly, bringing bulldozers to move debris and cutting trees with chainsaws to clear highways and hundreds of roads blocked by the wreckage.
“What’s taking up most of your time right now just gaining access to some of these areas,” said Panama City Fire Chief Alex Baird.
The fire department has received more than 200 calls for checks on residents and Baird said it could take days or weeks before they complete them. Residents still unaccounted for could be trapped in isolated areas and crews need to go door-to-door because there is no power and cellphone service is spotty.
In Mexico Beach, a seaside town that was virtually wiped away, rescue teams used dogs as they combed through rubble piles and mangled structures one more time looking for survivors.
It was unclear how many people were still missing on Saturday. About 280 of the town’s 1,200 residents said they planned to ride out the storm but authorities say many fled at the last minute when Michael gained more force, Mayor Al Cathey said.
Only an elderly man has been found dead and officials fear more people could be dead.
Wife watched her husband die
Sitting in a red pickup just steps away from her damaged home, Gayle Sweet recalled the last moments she shared with her husband.
“I told him, ‘Hold on, just hold on, I’m calling for help now,'” she told CNN affiliate WFTS on Thursday, sobbing.
Her husband, Steven, was killed when an oak tree smashed their home in Gretna, Florida, and landed on top of him. The 44-year-old was among at least 18 who have died since Hurricane Michael made landfall Wednesday.
Hours after the storm left her home in ruins, Gayle Sweet refused to leave. Her husband’s body was still trapped in the rubble.
“Hopefully they (emergency crews) will be here soon. I’m not going anywhere until they bring him out,” she said.
At least eight people, including Sweet, have died in Florida. An 11-year-old girl died in Georgia when a carport came crashing through the roof. Two of the three people who were killed in North Carolina died when their vehicle struck a tree that had fallen because of high winds, said Adrienne Jones, deputy director for the McDowell County Emergency Medical Services.
Six people died in Virginia. Four drowned and a firefighter was killed when a tractor-trailer lost control and hit his truck on a wet highway in Hanover County. The Virginia Department of Emergency Management said Saturday the sixth person died in Charlotte County.
The impact of climate change on storms
Michael’s strength may reflect the effect of climate change on storms. The planet has warmed significantly over the past several decades, causing changes in the environment.
According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, human-caused greenhouse gases in the atmosphere create an energy imbalance, with more than 90% of remaining heat trapped by the gases going into the oceans.
While there might not be more storms in a warmer climate, most studies show storms will get stronger and produce more rain. Storm surge is worse now than it was 100 years ago, thanks to the rise in sea levels.
The scientific research group Climate Central says unless the rate of greenhouse gas emissions changes, hurricanes are expected to intensify more rapidly in the coming decades.