Nearly 2,000 local law enforcement officers, 500 Florida state troopers, 1,200 National Guardsmen and a flotilla of Coast Guard ships and aircraft were scouring wreckage in Hurricane Michael’s wake Wednesday night and early Thursday as officials expressed dismay that relatively few people had taken refuge in Panhandle storm shelters.
The near-Category 5 storm – the strongest hurricane to hit Florida’s Panhandle in recorded history – made landfall near Mexico Beach just before 3 p.m. with 155 mph winds.
More than 375,000 residents in 20 counties along the 200-mile Panhandle and Big Bend region were ordered to evacuate but, as the storm neared, the State Emergency Response Team estimated there were only about 6,700 people in 54 regional shelters.
American Red Cross Vice President of Operations and Logistics Brad Kieserman in a news conference estimated as many as 320,000 people in those low-lying Panhandle areas did not evacuate and rode out the storm.
Michael blew up early Sunday off Cuba and went from a tropical storm to a projected Category 3 hurricane in the span of six hours Tuesday.
The storm “intensified extremely quickly and didn’t give anyone enough time to do much,” Kieserman said.
As of 8 p.m. Wednesday, at least 200,000 Panhandle homes were without power and one person had been confirmed killed in the storm, but information was spotty as first responders tried to get into areas isolated by swollen rivers, downed power-lines and weakened bridges with nightfall approaching.
Duke Energy, the area’s chief electrical utility, announced it had 7,000 workers restoring power Wednesday night, the vanguard of a “power restoration force” that will exceed 19,000 workers, including workers from Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky.
It may still take weeks to restore power in some areas, Duke warned.
“Historical data and company experience indicate complete restoration from a storm of this magnitude could take multiple days to over a week – depending on the extent of actual damage, crews’ ability to access remote areas and islands, and conditions following the storm, such as flooding,” the company said in a news release
In a news conference from the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, Gov. Rick Scott said emergency responders were staging land, air and sea rescues in the wake of “the worst storm that the Florida Panhandle has ever seen and one of the worst to ever make landfall in the United States.”
He asked residents to stay home and to not wander around to see the damage inflicted by Michael. He said food and water distribution to affected areas would begin Thursday.
The State Emergency Response Team estimated various agencies and nonprofits had assembled 1.5 million meals ready to eat, 1 million gallons of water and 40,000, 10-pound bags of ice for distribution.
Scott activated the Florida Disaster Fund earlier Wednesday, a private fund established to respond and recover to natural disasters in the state that is managed by the Volunteer Florida Foundation. Duke Energy committed the first $50,000 to the fund.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Brock Long said in a statement that his agency would have nearly 3,000 people in the field ready to assist starting Thursday.
The U.S. Department of Labor also Wednesday announced it was making National Dislocated Worker Grants available to those in affected areas who are unable to work because of the storm. The federal program supplements state and local response and recovery efforts.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar late Tuesday declared a public health emergency in Florida, mobilizing federal medical assistance and providing federally supported healthcare providers and suppliers greater flexibility in meeting emergency health needs.
“These actions help ensure that our fellow Americans who rely on Medicare and Medicaid have continuous access to the care they need,” Azar stated in a news release that noted the department would dispatch a 125-member incident management team Thursday.
With the storm bearing down on Tallahassee Wednesday, a coalition of groups filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeking a federal injunction ordering Florida to allow voter registration to continue in the 35 counties in the disaster declaration to continue until Oct. 16.
Florida’s voter registration deadline for the Nov. 6 election was Tuesday. On Monday, state Secretary of State Ken Detzner ordered Supervisors of Elections in the 35 counties who chose to close their offices on Tuesday to extend the voting deadline to the day after they reopen.
The Florida Democratic Party filed a suit in the same court on Tuesday. Common Cause Florida, New Florida Majority Education Fund, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Mi Familia Vota Education Fund filed Wednesday’s suit.
The coalition’s suit argues that the state’s one-day extension is inadequate and is not a “reasonable effort to accommodate the needs of its voting citizens and provide additional time for them to register to vote or update their registration information in advance of the November election.”
The lawsuit states Florida’s refusal to extend the voter registration deadline in light of the pending disaster violates the 14th Amendment and that tens of thousands of eligible Floridians will not be allowed to register and vote in November’s mid-term election.