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MEXICO BEACH, Florida —
Four days removed after Hurricane Michael pulverized the Florida Panhandle, officials in Mexico Beach, which was one of the communities hit the hardest, told ABC News 46 people remain unaccounted for.
Nearly 300 people, including 10 children, rode out the storm when it made landfall in the middle of last week, according to the town’s city clerk and mayor.
There has been only one reported fatality in Mexico Beach from Hurricane Michael. The overall death toll from Michael’s destructive march from Florida to Virginia stood at 17 on Sunday.
Officials, though, are still hopeful that the actual number is zero as they find out where people went and are able to get in contact with loved ones.
Search-and-rescue teams in the beach town had already combed areas with the worst damage.
“If we lose only one life, to me that’s going to be a miracle,” Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey said.
He said enough food and water had been brought in for the residents who remain. Even some cellphone service had returned to the devastated community.
President Donald Trump plans to visit Florida and Georgia on Monday to see damage.
Four days after the storm struck, a large swath of the Panhandle was suffering, from little beach towns to the larger Panama City to rural communities miles from where the hurricane came ashore. About 190,000 people in Florida were without electricity.
“There are a lot of inland areas, some of these poor rural counties to the north of there. These counties took a devastating hit,” Sen. Marco Rubio said on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”
“And we are talking about poor people, many of them are older, miles from each other, isolated in many cases from roads, including some dirt roads that are cut off right now. We haven’t been able to reach those people in a number of days.”
Some victims stranded by the storm managed to summon relief by using logs to spell out “HELP” on the ground, officials in Bay County, which includes Mexico Beach, said in a Facebook post Sunday. Officials said someone from another county was using a mapping app, noticed the distress message and contacted authorities.
No details were released on who was stranded and what sort of help was needed.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bill Nelson said Tyndall Air Force Base on the Panhandle was heavily damaged, but he promised it would be rebuilt. The Florida Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee said older buildings on the base were demolished, while newer ones will need substantial repairs.
The base is home to some of the nation’s most advanced fighter jets, and Nelson said some hangars were damaged severely. But he gave no information on how many planes were on the base during the storm or how many were damaged.
For the few residents remaining in Mexico Beach, conditions were treacherous.
Steve Lonigan was outside his home, talking with neighbor Jim Ostman, when a loud cracking sound made both men jump. It was just a small wooden block shifting in the sand beneath the weight of the front end of Lonigan’s camper trailer.
“All this stuff is just dangerous,” Ostman said, glancing at the destruction all around. “It’s so unstable.”
Lonigan and his wife returned Sunday after evacuating to Georgia. Seawater surged into his home, leaving a soggy mess of mud and leaves, even though the house stands 12 feet above ground on concrete blocks.
The single-story house had broken windows, and part of its roof and front steps were missing. Lonigan used a ladder to climb inside.
“We’ve got a lot more left than other people,” he said. “We were able to sleep in the bedroom last night.”
In hard-hit Panama City, pastor John Blount held Sunday services at St. Andrew United Methodist Church outdoors, in front of a wall demolished by the storm. Afterward, the church held a large cookout for the storm-weary.
Untold numbers of people across the region have damaged homes and no power and don’t have the means to relocate, either to a new or temporary place.
More roads were becoming passable as crews cleared trees and power lines, but traffic lights remained out and there were long lines at the few open gas stations.
Florida officials evacuated nearly 3,000 inmates from two hurricane-damaged prisons – the Gulf Correctional Institution and Annex and Calhoun Correctional Institution. They had damage to the roof and the infrastructure critical for security, authorities said. No inmates or staff members were injured.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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