PANAMA CITY, Fla. — It was two days after Hurricane Michael, and Eddie Foster was pushing his mother in a wheelchair down a thoroughly smashed street, his face creased with a concentrated dose of the frustration and fear that has afflicted much of the Florida Panhandle since the brutal storm turned its coast to rubble.
He was in a working-class neighborhood called Millville, where many residents said they were becoming desperate for even basic necessities. Mr. Foster, 60, and his 99-year-old mother had no car, no electricity. The food had spoiled in his refrigerator. The storm had ripped off large sections of his roof. He had no working plumbing to flush with. No water to drink. And as of Friday afternoon, he had seen no sign of government help.
“What can I do?” he said. “I’m not angry. I just want some help.”
This was the problem that government officials were racing to solve on Friday, as desperation grew in and around Panama City under a burning sun. Long lines formed for gas and food, and across the battered coastline, those who were poor, trapped and isolated sent out pleas for help.
It would take time to reach everyone. Yet the Panama City area, one of those hit hardest by Hurricane Michael, grew into a whirring hive of activity on Friday, as box trucks, military personnel, and rescue and aid workers flowed in from surrounding counties and states, struggling to fix communications and electrical systems that officials said were almost totally demolished.
The death toll from the Category 4 storm rose to 16, stretching as far north as Virginia, where five people died, and it was expected to climb higher as search-and-rescue crews fanned out through rubble that in some cases spanned entire blocks. The toll also included the potential of millions of dollars in damage to aircraft, which were left behind during the storm at Tyndall Air Force Base.
For those waiting for relief supplies or the ability to return to their homes, Brock Long, the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, counseled patience. “Bottom line, it was one of the most powerful storms the country has seen since 1851,” he said. “It’s going to be a long time before they can get back.”
In Panama City, people pitched in when they could. Some even opened stores that lacked electricity: A Sonny’s barbecue restaurant fired up its smokers in the parking lot, feeding many who gathered in the late morning in a line that was at least 100 grateful residents long.
But in a city of unusable toilets and iffy cellular service — where nearly every street seemed like a set from a disaster movie — tensions were occasionally high as people waited for their first hot meal since Tuesday night. Before noon, a shouting match broke out between two men waiting for their barbecue plates. “Stop it!” a server admonished them at the top of his lungs. “Now we’re all being kind — got it?”