Donald Trump

Trump Visits Florida; Search for Missing in Hurricane Michael Continues

Four days after the storm struck, a large swath of the Panhandle was suffering, from little beach towns to the larger Panama City to rural communities miles from where the hurricane came ashore

What to Know

  • The death toll from Michael's destructive march from Florida to Virginia stood at 19 Monday as recovery work continued
  • Hundreds of thousands of homes remained without power in Florida and Georgia, where the president is visiting
  • Some people in Bay County stranded by the storm managed to summon relief by using logs to spell out "HELP" on the ground, officials said

Upon touring the damage in several towns along Florida's Panhandle, Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long called the destruction left by Hurricane Michael some of the worst he's ever seen.

President Donald Trump marveled at the roofless homes and uprooted trees he saw Monday while touring Florida Panhandle communities ravaged by the force of Hurricane Michael.

Trump toured devastated coastal communities by air, land and foot before he and the first lady helped hand out bottled water at a Federal Emergency Management Agency aid distribution center, where the needy signed up for temporary housing and picked up clothing, diapers, water and other supplies. 

The president said someone described Hurricane Michael to him as being "like a very wide, extremely wide, tornado." 

"Look behind you. I mean, those massive trees are just ripped out of the earth. This is really incredible," Trump said. 

Trump narrowly won Florida over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, boosted by strong voter turnout in the Panhandle.

The state is important to Trump not only for his hopes of being re-elected in 2020 but also as he campaigns aggressively to help Republicans expand their slim 51-49 majority in the U.S. Senate. Fellow Republican and Florida Gov. Rick Scott is running for the Senate, partly at Trump's urging, and is in a close contest against Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson just weeks before Election Day. Scott shadowed Trump throughout Monday's visit. 

Trump and his wife, Melania, initially saw uprooted trees and houses topped with blue tarps after his helicopter lifted off from Eglin Air Force Base near Valparaiso, his first stop after leaving Washington. But the severity of the damage worsened significantly as Trump approached Mexico Beach, which was nearly wiped off the map after taking a direct hit from the hurricane and its 155 mph (250 kph) winds last week.

Many of the houses in the town of about 1,000 people had no roofs. In some cases, only the foundations were left standing. A water tower lay on its side, and 18-wheelers were scattered in a parking lot like children's toys.

In Panama City, where Trump landed, power poles bowed toward the ground, pieces of metal roofing were scattered about and pine trees had been uprooted or snapped in half. The view on the drive toward Panama City included houses smashed by trees, bent billboards and a demolished trailer park.

In nearby Lynn Haven, where the mayor said there was no loss of life, Trump walked up to a house where a massive pine tree lay on the front yard next to a palm tree that stood tall. Repairs were being made to the home, owned by Michael Rollins, who told Trump he rode out the storm there. 

"I knew I had made my commitment to stay with my animals. I have two dogs and a parrot," Rollins told Trump.

More than 190,000 homes and businesses in Florida were without electricity as of Sunday, days after the hurricane hit. That's in addition to about 120,000 in Georgia, where Trump arrived later Monday afternoon and planned to survey hurricane damage. Residents also grappled with widespread cellphone outages.

Throughout the day, the president profusely praised Scott's hurricane response. 

"The job they've done in Florida has been incredible," Trump told reporters. He told Scott: "You're a great governor." 

Scott said FEMA had granted all his requests and that he'd spoken with Trump "almost every day."

"Every time I've called, he's come through," Scott said.

The mood at the aid distribution center seemed lighthearted despite the surrounding devastation, as Trump bantered with a crowd that seemed more interested in selfies with him than in the bottled water he was offering in the heat and humidity. 

A woman carrying a toddler posed for a photo and then told Trump he should come back for barbecue. Another woman thanked the first lady for her anti-bullying campaign.

Some in the affected area were lukewarm about the president's visit.

About 5 miles from a neighborhood Trump visited, 57-year-old Sheila Vann sat on a cooler in her garage, taking a break from cleaning up. The hurricane tore off much of her roof in Panama City, and most of her ceiling collapsed after soaking up the storm's rain. Plus there were four freezers filled with fish and meat that were starting to spoil and smell.

"You want to see the president?" Vann asked her husband, Joseph, with a dismissive tone. "I ain't got time, unless he wants to help clean up."

Nanya Thompson, 68, of Lynn Haven, said of the president: "He's doing this, I believe, to project a different image of himself because of all the bad publicity he's had. He's not going in to get into the sewage water with other people and start digging."

"If this is just going to be another reality show, I don't think he should come," she added.

The death toll from Michael's destructive march from Florida to Virginia stood at 19 Sunday as crews worked to clear building debris along with the rubble from a collapsed section of the beachfront highway.

In hurricane-flattened Mexico Beach, crews with backhoes and other heavy equipment scooped up splintered boards, broken glass, chunks of asphalt and other debris Sunday as Mayor Al Cathey held out hope for the 250 or so residents who may have tried to ride out the storm.

"If we lose only one life, to me that's going to be a miracle," Cathey said.

He said enough food and water had been brought in for the residents who remain. Even some cellphone service had returned to the devastated community.

Mexico Beach City Clerk Adrian Welle told local media Sunday that 46 people were unaccounted for. That number had previously been 285, but officials think many left right before the storm hit. Other city officials told reporters that the number of unaccounted for was three. 

A Houston-based organization called CrowdSource Rescue that takes calls from worried family members and sends the details to rescue crews on the ground said it has helped find nearly 1,500 people across the region since Michael struck. But co-founder Matthew Marchetti said it was still looking for more than 1,350.

A framed portrait of Jesus was propped Sunday facing out of the window of Diana Hughes' home in Mexico Beach. She rode out the hurricane on the couch huddled with her dog and her ex-husband.

The storm peeled off a small section of the roof and a few inches of water got in the single-story house. But the pickup truck wouldn't start after getting swamped with water. Hughes still had her home, but no way to leave it.

"We need a generator, but we just lack transportation," Hughes said on her front porch. "We've got food and we've got water. But we've got to keep ice in the refrigerator so the food won't spoil. You can only eat so many crackers."

Four days after the storm struck, a large swath of the Panhandle was suffering, from little beach towns to the larger Panama City to rural communities miles from where the hurricane came ashore. 

"We are talking about poor people, many of them are older, miles from each other, isolated in many cases from roads, including some dirt roads that are cut off right now," Sen. Marco Rubio said on NBC's "Meet The Press." ''We haven't been able to reach those people in a number of days."

In downtown Marianna, Florida, the facades of historic buildings lay in pieces on the ground across from the courthouse. Jill Braxton stopped with a pickup truck loaded with hay, saying many people in rural areas nearby had trapped animals and needed supplies for their livestock.

"We're just trying to help some other people who may not be able to get out of their driveways for a couple of days," Braxton said. "There was a girl that had trapped horses, horses that were down, and horses that really needed vet care that could not get there. There's been animals killed. People lost their cows."

Some victims stranded by the storm managed to summon relief by using logs to spell out "HELP" on the ground, officials in Bay County, which includes Mexico Beach, said in a Facebook post. Officials said someone from another county was using an aerial mapping app, noticed the distress message and contacted authorities.

No details were released on who was stranded and what sort of help was needed.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bill Nelson said Tyndall Air Force Base on the Panhandle was heavily damaged, but he promised it would be rebuilt. The Florida Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee said older buildings on the base were demolished, while newer ones will need substantial repairs.

The base is home to some of the nation's most advanced fighter jets, and Nelson said some hangars were damaged severely. But he gave no information on how many planes were on the base during the storm or how many were damaged.

In a statement Sunday night, the Air Force said that, "Not one Airman or family member was injured during Hurricane Michael." Of its aircraft, the statement said that visually they all looked intact but that maintenance professionals will do a detailed assessment of the F-22 Raptors and other aircraft before they say with certainty that damaged aircraft can be repaired and sent back into the skies

For the few residents remaining in Mexico Beach, conditions were treacherous.

Steve Lonigan was outside his home, talking with neighbor Jim Ostman, when a loud cracking sound made both men jump. It was just a small wooden block shifting in the sand beneath the weight of the front end of Lonigan's camper trailer.

"All this stuff is just dangerous," Ostman said, glancing at the destruction all around. "It's so unstable."

Lonigan and his wife returned Sunday after evacuating to Georgia. Seawater surged into his home, leaving a soggy mess of mud and leaves, even though the house stands 12 feet (3.7 meters) above ground on concrete blocks.

The single-story house had broken windows, and part of its roof and front steps were missing. Lonigan used a ladder to climb inside.

"We've got a lot more left than other people," he said. "We were able to sleep in the bedroom last night."

One way to help people affected by Hurricane Michael is by donating to the Red Cross. Find more information on how to donate here.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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