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As Hurricane Michael recovery begins, telecommunications, electrical power still an issue in Florida Panhandle

Rescue teams head to Mexico Beach, Fla. to assist and evacuate residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael’s devastation. (Video: Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

BLOUNTSTOWN, Fla. — Electricity, communications and essential services are slowly being restored to the Florida Panhandle communities that were hobbled by Hurricane Michael on Wednesday, as hundreds of thousands of residents continue to feel isolated and lack electrical power.

About 200,000 Floridians are still sleeping in the dark and unable to operate their well water pumps. Many are running out of fuel in their vehicles. While this number has dropped from its peak of about 400,000, much of the power restoration has happened in places like Tallahassee, where the storm was not as severe and where restaurants and stores began reopening this weekend. The hardest-hit counties in the Panhandle remain in a primitive state.

Since Thursday, 17,000 utility workers have arrived to rebuild and repair the disrupted and destroyed infrastructure, and 2,000 cellular telephone company workers and 18,000 search-and-rescue personnel have arrived in the region, joining 4,000 Florida National Guard troops and multitudes of police and firefighters.

Gov. Rick Scott (R), touring the area for the third day in a row with FEMA Administrator William “Brock” Long, said he is urging cellphone companies to speed up their repairs, including deploying state police to escort utility trucks and workers through the increasingly clogged traffic on roads that have been blocked by downed trees, utility poles and other debris.

“One of the most frustrating problems is telecommunications,” Scott said outside the heavily damaged Blountstown High School, which was built in 2011. He and Long stood amid insulation while workers continued repairing the roof. Scott said the region’s communication systems, which at times have been in a near total blackout since the storm hit, have “got to get up because many people don’t know where food and water” distribution sites are.

The first 72 hours after a disaster is a period during which public officials find the most patience and cooperation from the public, but that time has expired. Long said FEMA and its partners have set up 23 food and water distribution points in the Florida Panhandle. FEMA workers are going to shelters — and, in one instance, outside a Piggly Wiggly supermarket in Bristol — to register people who need emergency assistance. About 20,000 people seeking aid have already registered with FEMA.

Long warned that recovery will take time, especially given the amount of devastation.

“A lot of times people don’t realize the National Guard, the power trucks, the charitable groups, this is all a coordinated effort,” Long said. “We are seeing the private sector come back up pretty quickly. We’ve got a long way to go, but expectations that things will be put back together instantly is mistaken.”

The destruction is immense. A Florida National Guard helicopter pilot said Friday that when he flew into obliterated Mexico Beach, he was shocked to see that the huge reinforced concrete electrical transmission standards had collapsed amid Michael’s storm surge, wind and rain. The timbered byways are now half as shady as they had been, with much of the surrounding forests lying across roads. It took crews two full days to clear most of the major and secondary roads near the tiny beach town.

Scott said he has received everything he has asked for from the federal government, and he talks to President Trump nearly daily about the situation.

“I’d like it to happen more rapidly,” Scott said. “Now, after clearing the roads, communications are the first priority, and power. We have an unbelievable problem in Bay County — Verizon is down and AT&T is up, but the county services are on Verizon. In other places, Verizon is up and AT&T is down.”

On the ground away from the area’s major roadways, it’s difficult to see progress. Power outages in some areas are predicted to last weeks or months, there are boil-water orders in several communities, and curfews remain in effect during night hours. And there are fears about potential fires given all the downed timber and a desire to burn off debris — a small fire could quickly become a conflagration.

In Calhoun County, just inland from Mexico Beach, Sheriff Glen Kimbrel said the primary commercial operation here is the timber industry, meaning the 14,500 residents are in for a long, slow recovery.

“We are used to bad days, but right now we’re facing three bad months,” he said. “We’ll be 25 years recovering from this in our timber community.”

A huge drive-through distribution center for Liberty County residents in Bristol was busy Sunday morning, with state and local authorities handing out food, water and ice.

A block away, in a church parking lot, the Loaves and Fishes charity from Ohio provided 1,400 plates of hot food Saturday and was expecting to surpass that Sunday. Women in Amish and Mennonite garb sang as they filled plates with potloaf — a mixture of meatloaf and potatoes — corn and tapioca. They also handed out cold bottles of water.

“We provide a hot meal twice a day. People are taking plates home to others who can’t get out,” said Freeman Miller, the organization’s secretary. “We are glad to help. We do this because we love the Lord.”

Normally the Bristol Church of God has a worship service that draws about 70, but just about two dozen congregants were able to gather in the parking lot outside the hurricane damaged church this Sunday.

“We had an impromptu service to give people an opportunity to praise God and testify — to be emotional if they want to,” said minister Terry Blackburn. “We’ve already seen several miracles.”

He said people spoke of escaping injury despite catastrophic property losses. The church roof was ruined by wind and its contents soaked by rain, but Blackburn pointed to fallen trees that just missed the church, largely sparing it. His parsonage across the street is now uninhabitable but his camper in the driveway was undamaged, so that’s where he and his wife are living.

“A group helped us put a tarp on the roof, and although we don’t have an abundance of supplies to give out, the Church of God donations are coming,” he said.