FEMA says parts of Florida remain unsafe
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is pleading with residents who have been displaced from their homes due to Hurricane Michael, to please be patient before they return home, because it may not be safe. (Oct. 12)
WASHINGTON – Federal officials helping Florida and other states dig out from the vast damage of Hurricane Michael said Friday it remains too dangerous to return to areas flooded by storm surge such as in Bay County.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with those who just went through one of most devastating storms this country has seen since 1851,” Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told reporters while coordinating assistance in Washington. “Rest assured that not only am I doing everything that I can, but the dedicated staff of FEMA and the coordinated federal response is doing everything that we can to alleviate pain and suffering as quickly as we can.”
Emergency teams are focused on restoring communications and transportation. But Long said debris and storm devastation in some areas prevents a safe return yet, with gas and power lines damaged.
“It’s still not safe to return, particularly to Bay County, Florida,” Long said. “There is no infrastructure there to support you and quite honestly it’s a dangerous area to go back into.”
Crews are working to reopen damaged areas.
“Anybody who evacuated Mexico Beach who is in a shelter, it’s going to be a long time before they’re actually able to go back and return to those places because it was heavily damaged,” Long said.
The storm decimated homes and businesses along the coast.
In Panama City on Friday, Agueda Sanchez and her son, Victor, used a tree limb to sweep up the debris at their family bakery where the 155 mph winds had blown out the building’s front wall. A few Coca-Cola bottles were arranged neatly on a shelf nearby.
“This place is our money maker,” Victor Sanchez said. “It’s how we pay our bills.”
The bakery, La Fuente on U.S. 98, had been part of a small strip mall occupied by a handful of local business owners. The roof was peeled off much of the complex. A pile of brick and debris containing everything from office chairs to a street sign lay where the western wall of the building once stood.
“I don’t know if they’re going to rebuild,” Victor Sanchez said. “It depends on the owners and the insurance.”
Agueda Sanchez said the family business had been open roughly 13 years before losing it all.
“Maybe look for another place, I don’t know,” she said.
Search and rescue teams spread out along U.S. Route 98 Friday morning looking for survivors from Mexico Beach to Apalachicola. As each section was cleared a mark showing the area was checked was spray-painted in orange or green fluorescent color.
Clues about whether somebody might be home included vehicles in driveways and unlocked doors. Padlocks on the outside of doors, for instance, were a good tell that someone was not inside.
“We want to make sure we have everybody accounted for,” said Lt. Jeff Hansen of the Central Florida Urban Search and Rescue Task Force Four, who was leading a six-person crew through what remained of homes in the Beacon Hill area of Port St. Joe.
At the Overlook City Bridge on County Road 386, people who stopped Friday to try and make a cell phone call found the site not working.
“We heard another Verizon tower went down,” said Pam Burrows, whose house survived the storm. “Knock on wood, we’re fine. We just had a new roof put on.”
But Pam and her husband Rusty Burrows were considering how to survive the coming weeks.
“In a week we won’t have propane, we won’t have water,” she said. “In a week we’ll be using water from the Intracoastal Waterway to flush our toilets.”
Kevin Yeskey, acting deputy assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, said four hospitals and 11 nursing homes in Florida were closed Friday, while all remain open in Georgia.
In Panama City, Bay Medical Sacred Heart Hospital and Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center have evacuated patients but are treating those who arrive in the emergency room, Yeskey said.
U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar declared an emergency in Georgia on Thursday following Florida earlier in the week to make payments more flexible to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, providers and suppliers.
When returning to damaged areas, Yeskey urged residents to consult with health and emergency authorities, and to wear boots, eye protection and gloves.
“In many places it’s not safe to go back to your residence,” Yeskey said.
The Coast Guard has rescued 129 people and one animal, and helped transport 142 nursing home patients to safe haven at Pensacola hospital. The Coast Guard deployed 17 cutters, nine fixed-wing and 24 rotary-wing aircraft for search and rescue, and to assess damage.
The Coast Guard continues to assess damage in Bay and Gulf counties, and urged residents not to board partially sunken vessels without assistance. The ports in Pensacola and Cedar Key reopened. But Panama City port remained closed in Florida, and ports in Wilmington and Morehead City, North Carolina remained shuttered Friday.
The Red Cross has 1,000 trained disaster personnel heading to the area. The Salvation Army has 48 mobile feeding kitchens, which can each provide 1,500 meals per day.
Robinson of the Pensacola News Journal reported from Panama City, Florida.
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