After Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida Panhandle on its way north, officials in the state were left with the macabre task of figuring out the storm’s death toll — a question that could take some time to answer.
In Bay County, Fla., where Michael made landfall last week as a powerful Category 4 storm, the sheriff said Tuesday that 12 hurricane-related deaths had been confirmed there. That pushes the total deaths linked to the storm to at least 30 across four states, with other deaths in Florida under investigation and officials still exploring some of the most ravaged areas.
Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford said the toll, while tragic, remains lower than what many had expected based on the sheer devastation the hurricane left behind. Some had anticipated a higher death toll in Mexico Beach, Fla., because nearly 300 people had told authorities they weren’t planning to evacuate the tiny seaside town, which was obliterated by Michael’s storm surge and 155 mph winds as it made landfall.
Ford said in an interview that the death toll could rise in Bay County, which includes Panama City.
“But based on what we’re seeing on the ground, I don’t anticipate it rising — we don’t anticipate it rising dramatically,” Ford said. “It’s nothing short of a miracle. We expected a large death toll.”
Ford said the medical examiner had determined the 12 deaths were all storm related. While Ford did not have a breakdown of the deaths by location, he said at least a couple of people were killed in Mexico Beach. Ford also said he suspected that many of the people in Mexico Beach who had planned to ride out the storm there “did flee at the last minute.”
“It was sobering to wake up . . . at 4 o’clock in the morning on Wednesday and see it was continuing to intensify and we were within the crosshairs and there was a narrowing cone of uncertainty,” he said.
Ford said he did not know exactly how many people were still believed to be missing in Bay County, where officials are still struggling with their communication systems in the storm’s wake; several could not be reached Tuesday as cellphone service remained limited. CrowdSource Rescue, an organization in Texas that collects reports of missing people and relays them to first responders and volunteers on the ground, said it had reports of more than 700 people missing across Florida as of Tuesday afternoon.
Florida officials did not immediately provide a statewide number for how many people are considered to be missing. The office of Gov. Rick Scott (R) reported that more than 138,000 people still lacked electrical power as of Tuesday afternoon, many of them in the waterfront counties along the gulf and tracking inland across the panhandle along the storm’s track.
“One thing that complicates the missing-person issue is a lot of that is the inability to communicate with each other and communicate with the outside world,” Ford said.
He was out Monday night and got a text message from a law enforcement officer in another county unable to reach an elderly uncle in Bay County. “I was able to go by and check, and he was fine,” Ford said. “He just had no ability to communicate he was fine.”
Parts of Florida remained shattered. Seven school districts were “closed until further notice,” Scott’s office said Tuesday. In a statement, Scott also called on telecommunications companies to make clear how they would help get service going again, and his office was sharply critical of the lingering outages affecting Floridians.
“Due to these outages, families are having a difficult time communicating with loved ones, first responders have faced challenges communicating and people are having difficulty getting their prescriptions filled because of the inability to connect to a network,” his office said.
The storm’s ultimate death toll still remained unclear nearly a week after the storm. Virginia officials reported six deaths there, while authorities reported three deaths in North Carolina and two in Georgia.
State officials in Florida late Tuesday afternoon said they had confirmed 16 deaths due to the storm, an increase from earlier in the day when they confirmed two deaths while local authorities were reporting larger numbers.
In Florida, death tolls after hurricanes are reported through the Medical Examiners Commission of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Counties send their death counts to the commission, which then sends that information to state officials for release as the official tallies for Florida, said Stephen Nelson, chair of the commission.
“Our problem here is that it’s taken a while to even access those communities and to be able to talk to our folks on the ground,” Nelson, the medical examiner in a district that includes Polk County, Fla., said in an interview. He said that, in Bay County, the medical examiner’s office had no electricity as of Monday afternoon and was relying on a generator.
There are two kinds of deaths attributed to a storm, Nelson said. Direct deaths include people slain when they drive into flooded areas and drown or are inside buildings that are knocked over. Indirect deaths, which are typically more frequent, often happen during preparations and cleanup, including when someone slips and falls off a roof or dies of poisoning from carbon monoxide produced by a generator.
The State Emergency Operations Center said a 94-year-old woman was killed in Clay County. The state also reported one storm-related death in Gulf County, although more information was not available about what happened.
State officials also said the deaths of two men, 44 and 71, had been confirmed in Gadsden County. The Gadsden County Sheriff’s Office initially reported four “storm-related fatalities” last week, then said only one had been officially confirmed as a death from the hurricane and that the other three were sent to the medical examiner’s office for further determination. A sheriff’s spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether the second death confirmed by the state was among those that was being investigated.
Some local officials have reported figures that the state has not yet released; Rodney Andreasen, emergency management director for Jackson County, Fla., said his county had confirmed three deaths from the storm.
Law enforcement officials and first responders are still working to figure out if there are any dead or injured people unaccounted for, and Nelson warned that the number could rise across the state.
“As those search and recovery efforts take place, I would be surprised if our body count did not rise,” Nelson said. It is difficult for them to get into all of the impacted areas, Nelson said, so “the more that they’re able to get into . . . the more remote areas, I’d be very surprised if that death count does not go up.”