'More fatalities are going to show up': Death toll from Hurricane Michael proves elusive
Lack of power and water delays work at key medical examiner office
In Florida, a grim task is unwinding slowly: Finding out how many people were killed in Hurricane Michael.
The storm that ravaged Florida's Panhandle left incredible destruction stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the state border, but getting a firm grasp on how many died is proving somewhat elusive.
On Tuesday afternoon, state officials updated the number of dead in Florida from two to 16. They did not provide details of how the victims' deaths were storm-related, but said 12 of the deaths occurred in Bay County, a seaside area that took a direct hit from the storm.
The Associated Press reported an additional 10 deaths in Virginia, Georgia and North Carolina. Officials have not confirmed the death toll in those states.
Meanwhile, search and rescue teams have crawled and walked through thousands of buildings and ruins for days in places like Mexico Beach, which was virtually wiped out when the storm roared ashore last week. Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey now says two people are confirmed dead in the city — a man and a woman living in separate homes who did not leave the area when evacuation orders were issued.
"Unfortunately there are going to be more fatalities than people want to admit," said State Rep. Halsey Beshears, a Republican whose district includes several of the counties hammered by Michael. "If you stayed in Mexico Beach, there's no way you could have survived. I think more fatalities are going to show up every day."
Joanne Garone Behnke called it "torture" awaiting news about whether her 79-year-old aunt who stayed in Mexico Beach had survived.
'I'm very hopeful'
Right after the storm hit, Brock Long, chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he expected the death toll to rise after hearing reports that some people refused to leave before the storm made landfall.
But both Long and Gov. Rick Scott sidestepped questions late Sunday after they returned from an all-day trip to some of the hard-hit communities.
"I'm very hopeful that everybody is going to be found alive and that everybody is going to survive this," Scott said.
Right after the storm, state officials said thousands of calls inquiring about missing people came in to authorities and non-profit groups. FEMA did announce Monday that search and rescue teams along with the U.S. Coast Guard and National Guard had rescued or assisted more than 4,000 people in storm-impacted areas and that they had checked on thousands of homes and buildings.
State officials say they will announce storm-related fatalities once they are certified by local medical examiners who have gone through the steps of positively identifying those who died and performing autopsies to determine cause of death.
Part of the problem, state emergency officials say, is that the medical examiner's office responsible for certifying deaths in several of the hardest-hit counties was without power or water until Monday.
Plans to bring in a mobile morgue unit were scrapped over the weekend, but state teams did bring in refrigerated trucks to four cities that can be used for both storm victims and to assist funeral homes that have lost power.
'We're still working on it'
Florida officials point out they have used the same process in the past, but this comes amid the political backdrop of what happened in Puerto Rico.
Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that "3,000 people did not die" in the hurricanes that hit the island last year. He also falsely alleged that the official death toll was part of a plot by Democrats to make him look bad. Republicans in Florida, including Scott, disagreed with Trump and said they did not dispute the death toll numbers.
For some families, the wait is proving to be unbearable.
"I've been on the phone to reporters, to fire chiefs, to heads of task force from Miami, to you name it. I've called them. I've called every hospital," Garone Behnke said Monday as she stopped to read a text from the fire chief in Mexico Beach.
The response was not surprising.
"We're still working on it ... we'll keep you posted," the text read.