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 number of deaths linked to the storm to at least 28 people 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 believed 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.
It was unclear how many people were still missing as of Tuesday. 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 on Tuesday as cell 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 still 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 still believed to be missing, though they noted that large numbers of people are often reported missing after disasters, particularly when cell service and electricity are both in short supply. Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R)’s office 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.