Man suspected in parcel bombs case arrested in Florida

Cesar Altieri Sayoc in an August 2015 booking photo. Broward County Sheriff's Office/via REUTERS

By Zachary Fagenson and Bernie Woodall

PLANTATION, Fla. (Reuters) – FBI agents used DNA and a fingerprint to identify the Florida man suspected of sending at least 14 parcel bombs to critics of U.S. President Donald Trump days ahead of congressional elections.

Cesar Sayoc has been charged with five federal crimes including threats against former presidents and faces up to 58 years in prison if found guilty, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at a news conference.

“We will not tolerate such lawlessness, especially political violence,” he said.

FBI agents arrested Sayoc, 56, in Plantation, Florida and also hauled away a white van plastered with pro-Trump stickers, the slogan “CNN SUCKS” and images of Democratic figures with red crosshairs over their faces.

A law enforcement officer checks a van which was seized during an investigation into a series of parcel bombs, in Plantation, Florida October 26, 2018 in a still image fro video. WPLG/Handout via REUTERS

A law enforcement officer checks a van which was seized during an investigation into a series of parcel bombs, in Plantation, Florida October 26, 2018 in a still image fro video. WPLG/Handout via REUTERS

FBI Director Christopher Wray told the news conference that fingerprints on a package sent to Representative Maxine Waters belonged to Sayoc.

He also said there could be other packages.

Announcing the arrest by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to a cheering audience at the White House, Trump said such “terrorizing acts” were despicable and had no place in the United States.

“We must never allow political violence to take root in America – cannot let it happen,” Trump said. “And I’m committed to doing everything in my power as president to stop it and to stop it now.”

Sayoc’s home address was listed in public records as an upscale gated apartment complex in the seaside town of Aventura, Florida.

According to the records, he is a registered Republican with a lengthy criminal past – including once making a bomb threat – and a history of posting inflammatory broadsides on social media against Trump’s political foes.

Sayoc was being held at an FBI processing center in Miramar, Florida, CNN said. He was expected to be taken to the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami and will likely make his first appearance before a judge on Monday, according to former Assistant U.S. Attorney David Weinstein.

Police respond to a report of a suspicious package in the Manhattan borough of New York, New York, U.S., October 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Police respond to a report of a suspicious package in the Manhattan borough of New York, New York, U.S., October 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar

A federal law enforcement source said charges would likely be brought by federal prosecutors in Manhattan and Sayoc transferred to New York City.

(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson and Bernie Woodall; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus, Gabriella Borter and Peter Szekely in New York, Mark Hosenball, Makini Brice, Susan Heavey, Sarah N. Lynch in Washington, and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Cynthia Osterman)

Police find packages sent to ex-U.S. intel chief Clapper, Senator Booker

A U.S. Postal Inspection Service facility is pictured near Miami International Airport, in Miami, Florida, U.S., October 25, 2018. REUTERS/Zach Fagenson

By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) – Authorities found two more suspicious packages on Friday addressed to U.S. Senator Cory Booker and James Clapper, the former U.S. director of national intelligence, amid a manhunt for the person who sent bombs to prominent Democrats and critics of U.S. President Donald Trump.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) walks to an elevator as he leaves the Senate chamber after a procedural vote on the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 5, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) walks to an elevator as he leaves the Senate chamber after a procedural vote on the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 5, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

The 11th package was found at a mail sorting facility in Florida and was addressed to Booker, the Democratic senator from New Jersey, the FBI said on Twitter. A 12th package was addressed to James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, and sent to CNN, the cable network reported.

Meanwhile, a local police bomb squad and canine units joined federal investigators on Thursday to examine a sprawling U.S. mail distribution center at Opa-Locka, northwest of Miami, Miami-Dade County police said.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said that Florida appeared to be the starting point for at least some of the bomb shipments.

“Some of the packages went through the mail. They originated, some of them, from Florida,” she said during an interview with Fox News Channel on Thursday. “I am confident that this person or people will be brought to justice.”

Authorities called the parcel bombs an act of terrorism. They were sent less than two weeks before national elections that could alter the balance of power in Washington.

FILE PHOTO: Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on “Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election” on Capitol Hill in Washington, U .S., May 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

FILE PHOTO: Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on “Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election” on Capitol Hill in Washington, U .S., May 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

No one has claimed responsibility for the bombs, and the public was asked to report any tips.

All the people targeted were frequently maligned by right-wing critics. They included Democratic Party donor George Soros, former President Barack Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden, and former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has said that at least five of the packages bore a return address from the Florida office of U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Authorities believe the packages, which were intercepted before reaching their intended recipients, all went through the U.S. Postal Service at some point, a source said. None detonated and no one has been hurt.

The devices were thought to have been fashioned from bomb-making designs widely available on the internet, a federal law enforcement source told Reuters.

Still, investigators are treating the devices as “live” explosives, not a hoax, said James O’Neill, the New York City police commissioner. Two of the parcels surfaced there.

“It does remain possible that further packages have been or could be mailed,” William Sweeney, assistant director of the FBI, told a news conference in New York.

Investigators have declined to say whether the devices were built to be functional. Bomb experts and security analysts say that based on their rudimentary construction it appeared they were more likely designed to sow fear rather than to kill.

The parcels each consisted of a manila envelope with a bubble-wrap interior containing “potentially destructive devices,” the FBI said. Each was affixed with a computer-printed address label and six U.S. “Forever” postage stamps, the agency said.

Others who received the bombs were former Attorney General Eric Holder, former CIA director John Brennan, U.S. Representative Maxine Waters of California, and actor Robert De Nero. Two packages were sent both to Waters and Biden.

Brennan’s package was sent in care of the New York bureau of CNN, where he has appeared as an on-air analyst.

The episode sparked an outcry from Trump’s critics, who charged that his inflammatory rhetoric against Democrats and the press has created a climate for politically motivated violence.

After first calling for “unity” and civil discourse on Wednesday, Trump lashed out again Thursday at the “hateful” media. His supporters accused Democrats of unfairly suggesting the president was to blame for the bomb scare.

“Funny how lowly rated CNN, and others, can criticize me at will, even blaming me for the current spate of Bombs and ridiculously comparing this to September 11th and the Oklahoma City bombing, yet when I criticize them they go wild and scream, “it’s just not Presidential!” Trump said on Twitter at about 3:15 a.m. EST (0715 GMT) on Friday.

(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter, Jonathan Allen and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Mark Hosenball and Susan Heavey in Washington; Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Bill Trott and Steve Gorman; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Hurricane strands many in Florida Panhandle’s poor, rural backcountry

Bernard Sutton, 64, picks through the remains of his home destroyed by Hurricane Michael in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

By Terray Sylvester

FOUNTAIN, Fla. (Reuters) – Bernard Sutton, a 64-year-old cancer patient, and two buddies have been living out of a camping tent and broken-down minivan since his double-wide trailer home in rural Fountain, Florida, was torn apart by Hurricane Michael last week.

On Monday, five days after the storm plowed into Florida’s Gulf Coast, Sutton was standing over a heap of clothes, books, furniture and other belongings he had salvaged from the wreckage.

“I’m staying out here to try to keep away looters, to try to save what I can save,” he said. “This is everything we own right here.”

With his wife having moved in with a sister for the time being, Sutton said he had no means of transportation even if he was willing to leave. He had been working on the minivan’s motor when the storm hit and ended up taking cover from the hurricane on the ground underneath his shattered trailer.

Sutton, who worries about how he will make it to his next round of chemotherapy, is one of countless hurricane survivors in the backcountry of Florida’s Panhandle who have struggled for days without power, running water or sanitation as they await help from authorities.

While the attention of emergency officials, the media and even President Donald Trump has been focused on the devastated beachfront towns hardest hit by the storm, residents in battered communities farther inland said they were making do until disaster relief was able to reach them.

A home destroyed by Hurricane Michael is pictured in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

A home destroyed by Hurricane Michael is pictured in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

“Everyone needs help. We’re devastated out here. We’re wiped off the map,” said Gabriel Schaw, 40, gesturing to a handful of neighbors surrounding his own demolished mobile home in Fountain, an unincorporated Bay County community off U.S. Highway 231 northeast of Panama City.

Schaw said the first sign of outside help he had seen was some firefighters conducting checks nearby on Monday morning.

At least 85 percent of customers in four other mainly rural Panhandle counties – Calhoun, Franklin, Liberty and Gulf – remained without electricity on Monday, state officials said.

Schaw was camping out on his mattress in what remained of his trailer’s living room, now exposed to the elements with an exterior wall and part of the ceiling ripped open. With no power, he was unable to pump fresh water from his well.

Joy Aguilar, 27, a mother of two, said she was bathing her children in a nearby creek.

‘NEED WATER?’

A couple of miles away, Sutton and his roommates at least had access to drinking water thanks to a neighbor, Brian McCormick, 61, who had hooked up a generator to his own well.

“I’m just trying to do my part to help my neighbors,” said McCormick, sitting under a plastic awning beside two makeshift plywood signs near his gate. One read, “Need water?” The other instructed, “Bring containers. Ring Bell.”

Motorized access around the Panhandle has been obstructed by numerous fallen pine and oak trees that have been uprooted or snapped in half, with many of them strewn over two-lane highways and dirt roads that snake through the region.

“It’s slow-going for rescuers, and generally, if rescuers can’t get in, those people also can’t get out,” said Matthew Marchetti, co-founder of the volunteer search-and-rescue organization CrowdSource Rescue, which has several hundred members on the ground in Florida.

Widespread telephone outages left many residents cut off from relatives, prompting a flood of missing-persons reports since the storm hit.

CrowdSource Rescue teams were still trying to locate about 1,000 people who have been reported unaccounted for by family members, down from about 2,100 on Friday, Marchetti said. Official figures were unavailable.

CrowdSource was conducting the bulk of its checks around Panama City, near where Michael made landfall.

One was for a 78-year-old grandmother found on Monday outside the wreckage of the house where she lived alone with her two small dogs.

Russ Montgomery Jr., a CrowdSource volunteer from San Antonio, Texas, said the woman, whose name was withheld for privacy reasons, was down to her last bottle of water and surviving on fruit from her persimmon trees.

Montgomery said he had offered to drive the woman anywhere she wanted to go, but she insisted on staying put to ward off possible looters.

“She looked me right in the eye and said, ‘I’ve got a baseball bat and I know how to use it, and nobody’s coming into my house and taking my stuff,’” Montgomery recounted. He said he left her food and water, posed with her for a selfie, gave her a hug, and moved on.

(Reporting by Terray Sylvester in Fountain, Florida; Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Bernadette Baum)

Lack of power, phones hampering rescue efforts after Hurricane Michael

A search and rescue team works in homes destroyed by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 16, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

By Brian Snyder

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) – A lack of power and phone service in the areas of Florida flattened by Hurricane Michael last week was hindering efforts on Wednesday to distribute food and water and to contact residents not heard from since the storm plowed through the state’s Panhandle.

Damage caused by Hurricane Michael is seen in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 16, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

Damage caused by Hurricane Michael is seen in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 16, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

The hurricane, one of the most powerful storms on record to hit the continental United States, killed at least 27 people. It packed top sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (250 km per hour) and unleashed a surge of seawater that demolished homes.

Florida officials have not said how many people are missing. Many people may not be able to call friends and family or may be staying elsewhere and are not necessarily presumed dead. Debris, downed trees and power lines have hampered access to stranded people.

Teams made up of hundreds of volunteers with the Houston-based CrowdSource Rescue organization were searching for more than 1,135 people in Florida who lost contact with friends and family, Matthew Marchetti, co-founder of Houston-based CrowdSource Rescue.

Most of those missing are from Panama City and many are elderly, disabled, impoverished, or live alone, Marchetti said.

He said the search has been hindered by spotty cell phone coverage in the devastated area, though authorities are making progress in restoring communications.

Many residents have also expressed frustration at the slow pace of recovery of wireless networks. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Tuesday called for wireless carriers to waive bills for customers affected by the storm.

Mark Drake, 55, of Tallahassee, helps remove a stuffed blue marlin from a home damaged by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 16, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

Mark Drake, 55, of Tallahassee, helps remove a stuffed blue marlin from a home damaged by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 16, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

The death toll includes 17 in Florida, one in Georgia, three in North Carolina and six in Virginia, according to a Reuters tally of official reports. Officials said medical examiners were determining whether another four deaths in Florida resulted from the storm.

About 35,000 Floridians have called the Federal Emergency Management Agency seeking help since and the agency has already approved $1 million in assistance for people in 12 counties, spokesman Ruben Brown in Tallahassee said.

FEMA has distributed about 4.5 million meals, more than 5 million liters of water and 9 million infant-and-toddler kits, he said.

The state government is distributing ice, water and about 3 million ready-to-eat meals, Governor Rick Scott’s office said.

In Mexico Beach, which took a direct hit, the number of people missing dropped to three on Tuesday, said Rex Putnal, a city councilor. The town of 1,200 residents had reported two fatalities as of Monday.

Nearly 155,000 homes and businesses remained without power in the U.S. Southeast, with residents of battered coastal towns forced to cook on fires and barbecue grills.

At least 70 percent of customers in four mainly rural Florida Panhandle counties were without electricity on Wednesday. On Tuesday, the federal government said that 61.5 percent of cell sites remained out of service in Bay County. Officials said it could be weeks before power returns to some.

Countless numbers of people in the region’s backcountry have struggled for days without running water or sanitation, awaiting help from authorities. Some have been camping in tents with the belongings they were able to salvage.

(Additional reporting by Terray Sylvester and Bernie Woodall in Florida, Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, Andrew Hay in New Mexico, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Jonathan Allen and Gabriella Borter in New York and David Shepardson in Washington; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Death toll rises as searches continue after Florida hurricane

Aerial footage taken by a drone shows the damage after Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 14, 2018 in this still image taken from social media video. Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office via REUTERS

By Brian Snyder

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) – Another 10 people in Florida have been confirmed dead in the wake of Hurricane Michael, bringing the number of storm-related deaths to at least 29 as rescue workers try to reach hundreds more people whose whereabouts are unknown.

Michael, which made landfall on Wednesday as one of the most powerful storms on record to hit the continental United States, has killed 20 people in the Florida Panhandle, five in Virginia, three in North Carolina and one in Georgia, according to official tallies.

Teams from volunteer rescue organization CrowdSource Rescue were steadily making contact with people flagged by friends and relatives in the Panhandle disaster zone, according to Matthew Marchetti, co-founder of the Houston-based group. Volunteers still had not reached more than 1,135 people on Tuesday morning.

As cell phone service returned, the number of people unaccounted for in Mexico Beach, one of the hardest-hit towns, dropped to three, said Rex Putnal, a city councilor. A day earlier, it was more than 30.

“Hopefully, they left and we’ll find them safe somewhere,” he said, before heading to a clean-up effort where workers awaited the arrival of some overdue portable toilets.

“This type of living wears on you,” Putnal said. “This is about my fifth day and I’m just not used to washing clothes in a tub with no washer and dryer and eating only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

The town of 1,200 residents had reported two fatalities as of Monday. Rescue workers were using dogs to find any bodies that might be buried under the debris.

More than 200,000 people remained without power in the U.S. Southeast, with residents of battered coastal towns forced to cook on fires and barbecue grills.

At least 80 percent of customers in three mainly rural Panhandle counties were without electricity on Tuesday. Officials said it could be weeks before power returns to some.

Chris Bailey holds hot food prepared by Operation BBQ Relief and distributed by 50 Star Search and Rescue following Hurricane Michael in Panama City Beach, Florida, U.S., October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Chris Bailey holds hot food prepared by Operation BBQ Relief and distributed by 50 Star Search and Rescue following Hurricane Michael in Panama City Beach, Florida, U.S., October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

CAMPING IN TENTS

Countless residents in the region’s backcountry have struggled for days without running water or sanitation, awaiting help from authorities. Some have been camping in tents with the belongings they were able to salvage.

“I’m staying out here to try to keep away looters, to try to save what I can save,” said Bernard Sutton, a 64-year-old cancer patient, who has been living out of a tent and broken-down minivan.

Downed trees hampered access to those stranded by the storm.

The state government is distributing ice, water, and about 3 million ready-to-eat meals, according to Governor Rick Scott’s office.

Water supply was restored to some residents in Panama City on Monday but Bay County officials said it was not yet safe to drink.

Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle last week with top sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (250 km per hour).

The winds and storm surge caused $6 billion to $10 billion in insured losses, risk modeler AIR Worldwide said. Those figures exclude uninsured property or losses paid out by the National Flood Insurance Program, AIR Worldwide said.

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump visited the storm-affected areas on Monday, distributing bottles of water at an aid center in Lynn Haven, a city of about 18,500 people near Panama City.

(Reporting by Brian Snyder; Additional reporting by Terray Sylvester and Bernie Woodall in Florida, Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, Andrew Hay in New Mexico, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Jonathan Allen and Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, David Gregorio and Rosalba O’Brien)

Rescuers search for 1,000 missing in Florida Panhandle after hurricane

Bernard Sutton, 64, picks through the remains of his home destroyed by Hurricane Michael in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

By Steve Holland

LYNN HAVEN, Fla. (Reuters) – Rescue workers and volunteers searched for more than 1,000 people still missing in the Florida Panhandle and tens of thousands of residents remained without power on Tuesday after the area was devastated by Hurricane Michael last week.

At least 19 deaths in four states have been blamed on Michael which made landfall on Wednesday as one of the most powerful storms on record to hit the continental United States.

Volunteer rescue organization CrowdSource Rescue said its teams were trying to find 1,300 people still missing in the disaster zone in the Panhandle, according to Matthew Marchetti, co-founder of the Houston-based group.

About 30 to 40 people remained unaccounted for in Mexico Beach, according to a city councilor, Rex Putnal.

The mayor of the town of about 1,200 residents, which took a direct hit from the hurricane, has said that at least one person was killed, while CNN reported that another person was found dead on Monday.

With most Mexico Beach homes already searched for survivors, rescue workers were using dogs to find any bodies that might be buried under the debris.

More than 200,000 people were still without power in the U.S. Southeast, with residents of battered coastal towns such as Port St. Joe, Florida forced to cook on fires and barbecue grills.

At least 80 percent of customers in three mainly rural Panhandle counties were without electricity on Tuesday. Officials said it could be weeks before power returns to the areas that sustained the most damage.

CAMPING IN TENTS

Countless residents in the region’s backcountry have struggled for days without electricity, running water or sanitation as they await help from authorities. Some have been camping in tents with whatever belongings they were able to salvage.

“I’m staying out here to try to keep away looters, to try to save what I can save,” said Bernard Sutton, a 64-year-old cancer patient, who has been living out of a tent and broken-down minivan.

“This is everything we own right here,” he said, standing over a heap of clothes, books, furniture and other belongings.

Access to those stranded by the storm was hampered by downed oak trees across highways and dirt roads.

“Everyone needs help. We’re devastated out here. We’re wiped off the map,” said Gabriel Schaw, 40, gesturing to a handful of neighbors surrounding his own demolished mobile home in Fountain, Florida.

The state government is distributing ice, water and about 3 million ready-to-eat meals, according to Governor Rick Scott’s office.

With top sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (250 km per hour), Michael hit the Florida Panhandle as a Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale on Wednesday.

The winds and storm surge caused insured losses worth between an estimated $6 billion and $10 billion, risk modeler AIR Worldwide said. Those figures do not include losses paid out by the National Flood Insurance Program or uninsured property, AIR Worldwide said.

Water supply was restored to some residents in Panama City on Monday but Bay County officials said it was not yet safe to drink.

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump visited the storm-affected areas on Monday, arriving by helicopter from Eglin Air Force Base about 100 miles (160 km) to the west.

They distributed bottles of water at an aid center in Lynn Haven, a city of about 18,500 people near Panama City in northwestern Florida.

“To see this personally is very tough – total devastation,” said Trump, who later traveled to neighboring Georgia to see the storm damage there.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Terray Sylvester in Florida, Bernie Woodall in Florida, Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, Andrew Hay in New Mexico, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Bernadette Baum)

Trump sees Michael’s wrath, rescuers search for bodies

U.S. President Donald Trump visits a street in the the town of Lynn Haven, Florida, as he tours areas ravaged by Hurricane Michael in Florida and Georgia, U.S., October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Steve Holland

LYNN HAVEN, Fla. (Reuters) – President Donald Trump got a first-hand look on Monday at the “total devastation” that Hurricane Michael brought to Florida, as rescuers searched for scores of missing and hundreds of thousands of residents remained without electricity.

U.S. President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump and Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) help distribute water in the town of Lynn Haven, Florida, during a tour of areas ravaged by Hurricane Michael in Florida U.S., October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump and Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) help distribute water in the town of Lynn Haven, Florida, during a tour of areas ravaged by Hurricane Michael in Florida U.S., October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Trump and first lady Melania Trump passed out bottles of water at an aid center in Lynn Haven, a city of about 18,500 people near Panama City in northwestern Florida, after taking a helicopter flight from Eglin Air Force Base about 100 miles (160 km) to the west.

“To see this personally is very tough – total devastation,” said Trump, who later traveled to neighboring Georgia to see storm damage there.

At least 18 deaths in four states have been blamed on Michael, which crashed into the Panhandle last Wednesday as one of the most powerful storms on record to hit the continental United States.

Thousands of rescuers, including volunteers, are still combing remote areas of the Florida Panhandle for those reported missing. They include 46 in Mexico Beach, according to ABC News. The town took a direct hit from the hurricane, and at least one person died there.

With most Mexico Beach homes already searched for survivors, rescue workers began using cadaver dogs to try to recover any human remains that might be buried under debris.

“The next phase is recovery,” Ignatius Carroll, a Miami fire captain who leads a Federal Emergency Management Agency rescue team, said by phone as he combed through wreckage. “We start using the dogs for larger rubble piles that were created by the storm.”

Searchers went through debris by hand, rather than with machines, so as not to destroy any bodies, Mexico Beach Councillor Linda Albrecht said.

“We expect to find everybody, because that’s our mentality. We expect everything to work out, but who knows what’s down the road?” said Albrecht, who returned to her home on Sunday to find it destroyed.

About 200,000 people remained without power in the U.S. Southeast, with residents cooking with fires and barbecue grills during daylight in hard-hit coastal towns such as Port St. Joe, Florida.

BILLIONS IN INSURED LOSSES

Insured losses for wind and storm surge from Hurricane Michael will run between an estimated $6 billion and $10 billion, risk modeler AIR Worldwide said. Those figures do not include losses paid out by the National Flood Insurance Program or uninsured property, AIR Worldwide said.

With top sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (250 kph), Michael hit the Florida Panhandle as a Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.

Rescue efforts have been hampered by roads choked with downed trees after coastal woodlands and forests were uprooted by the storm.

Water service was restored to some in Panama City on Monday but Bay County officials said it was not yet safe to drink. Homeowners were advised to keep toilet flushes to a minimum because the sewer system was operating only at half capacity.

U.S. President Donald Trump riding aboard Marine One tours storm damage from Hurricane Michael along the Gulf Coast of Florida, October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. President Donald Trump riding aboard Marine One tours storm damage from Hurricane Michael along the Gulf Coast of Florida, October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The Florida Division of Emergency Management said that while power was returning in most areas, at least 85 percent of customers in four mainly rural Panhandle counties were without electricity on Monday. Officials said it could be weeks before power returns to the most-damaged areas.

“We’re living in the daylight, and living in the dark once night gets here,” said Port St. Joe Mayor Bo Patterson, whose town of 3,500 was without power.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Terray Sylvester, Bernie Woodall in Florida, Makini Brice and Roberta Rampton in Washington, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Editing by Will Dunham and Peter Cooney)

More dead expected in destroyed Florida Panhandle towns after Michael

A man carries food and water past a building damaged by Hurricane Michael in Parker, Florida, U.S., October 13, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

By Rod Nickel

MEXICO BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) – Dozens of people remained missing on Sunday in Florida Panhandle communities reduced to ruins by Hurricane Michael as rescuers said they expected the death toll to rise and survivors grappled with power outages and shortages of food and water.

A destroyed home is pictured following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 13, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

A destroyed home is pictured following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 13, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Already at least 18 deaths in four states have been blamed on the hurricane as rescue crews using cadaver dogs and heavy equipment searched through collapsed homes in small towns such as Mexico Beach and Panama City for more victims.

So far one person has been confirmed killed in Mexico Beach, which took a direct hit from the massive storm, but rescuers have been hobbled by blocked roads and huge piles of rubble from searching much of the town.

“If we lose only one life, to me that’s going to be a miracle,” Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey told local media.

Cathey said more than 250 residents had stayed behind when Michael came ashore on Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, one of the most powerful storms to make landfall in the continental United States since records have been kept.

A man walks out of his home following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 13, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

A man walks out of his home following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 13, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

The mayor told ABC News that 46 people out of the town of some 1,000 remained missing or unaccounted for as of Sunday. Search and rescue volunteers have already located hundreds of people initially reported missing last week across the Panhandle.

Florida Governor Rick Scott, who toured the devastated areas by helicopter with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)officials, said the top priority remained search and rescue efforts.

Scott said crews were also distributing food, water and fuel to residents who have faced long lines for supplies.

More than 1,700 search and rescue workers were deployed, Scott’s office said, including seven swift-water rescue teams and nearly 300 ambulances.

In Panama City, one of the hardest-hit communities, Fire Chief Alex Baird said search and rescue teams were now in “recovery mode” after largely giving up hope of finding any more survivors.

Electricity and telephone service were being slowly restored, but it could be weeks before power is restored to the state’s most damaged areas.

A destroyed boat is pictured following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 13, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

A destroyed boat is pictured following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 13, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Two Florida prisons housing a total of nearly 3,000 inmates were evacuated and closed at least temporarily after suffering structural damage from Michael, the Florida Department of Corrections said.

The department said no staff or inmates were injured during the storm and all had access to sufficient food and water.

President Donald Trump is expected to visit both Florida and Georgia early this week to inspect the damage, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, and the White House said late on Saturday the president was fully committed to helping state and local agencies with the recovery.

(Reporting by Rod Nickel; Additional reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in Port St. Joe, Florida, Bernie Woodall in Florida, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Trump, first lady to tour hurricane-ravaged Florida Panhandle

Dexter Humphries looks at destruction caused by Hurricane Michael from his driveway in Springfield, Florida, U.S., October 14, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

By Terray Sylvester

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump headed to Florida’s storm-ravaged Panhandle and Georgia on Monday to see the destruction caused by deadly Hurricane Michael.

Debris strewn over streets in Mexico Beach, October 11. Duke Energy/via REUTERS

Debris strewn over streets in Mexico Beach, October 11. Duke Energy/via REUTERS

The president and first lady were to arrive at Eglin Air Force Base in the Panhandle, Florida’s northwestern region, and were scheduled to return to the White House on Monday evening, the White House said. Trump last month visited North and South Carolina after they were hit by Hurricane Florence.

Trump was expected to hold a briefing with Florida Governor Rick Scott, a fellow Republican, at the base located about 100 miles (160 km) west of where Hurricane Michael came ashore on Wednesday as one of the most powerful storms on record to make landfall in the continental United States.

Insured losses for wind and storm surge from Hurricane Michael will run between an estimated $6 billion and $10 billion, risk modeler AIR Worldwide said. Those figures do not include losses paid out by the National Flood Insurance Program, AIR Worldwide said.

Michael hit the Florida Panhandle with 155 mph (250 kph) winds as a Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.

Michael Bailey (L) evacuates his home with his children, Azelia and Seth, in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Lynn Haven, Florida, U.S., October 14, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

Michael Bailey (L) evacuates his home with his children, Azelia and Seth, in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Lynn Haven, Florida, U.S., October 14, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

At least 18 people in four states have died because of the storm. Dozens of people remained missing on Sunday in Florida Panhandle communities left in ruins.

Rescuers said they expected the death toll to rise and they were using cadaver dogs and heavy equipment to search collapsed homes in small towns such as Mexico Beach and Panama City for more victims.

Rescue efforts have been hampered by blocked roads and huge piles of rubble in many communities such as Mexico Beach, which took a direct hit from the massive storm that killed at least one person there.

“If we lose only one life, to me that’s going to be a miracle,” Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey told Florida media.

Cathey told ABC News that 46 people out of the town of some 1,000 residents remained missing or unaccounted for on Sunday.

A family sits by a fire and prepares to eat a dinner of MREs in front of their house with no roof following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, October 13. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

A family sits by a fire and prepares to eat a dinner of MREs in front of their house with no roof following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, October 13.
REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Survivors grappled with power outages and shortages of food and water amid the mazes of uprooted trees and debris. Electricity and telephone service were being slowly restored but it could be weeks before power returns to the state’s most damaged areas.

More than 1,700 search and rescue workers were deployed, Scott’s office said, including seven swift-water rescue teams and nearly 300 ambulances.

In Panama City, Fire Chief Alex Baird said search-and-rescue teams were now in “recovery mode” after largely giving up hope of finding any more survivors.

Trump is fully committed to helping state and local agencies with the recovery, the White House said. It was announced late on Sunday that he declared a state of emergency in Georgia, freeing up federal resources for the state. A similar declaration had already been made for Florida.

(Reporting by Terray Sylvester in Panama City, Florida; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Devika Krishna Kumar in Port St. Joe, Bernie Woodall in Florida, and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Paul Tait and Will Dunham)

Hurricane Michael, among strongest in U.S. history, slams Florida Panhandle

Waves crash on stilt houses along the shore due to Hurricane Michael at Alligator Point in Franklin County, Florida, U.S., October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Steve Nesius

By Rod Nickel

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (Reuters) – Hurricane Michael, the fiercest storm to hit Florida in a quarter century and the third-most powerful ever to strike the U.S. mainland, roared into the state’s Gulf coast on Wednesday with tree-snapping winds and towering waves.

Michael, whose rapid intensification as it churned north over the Gulf of Mexico caught many by surprise, made landfall early in the afternoon near Mexico Beach, about 20 miles (32 km) southeast of Panama City in Florida’s Panhandle region, with top sustained winds reaching 155 miles per hour (249 kph).

The storm came ashore as a Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson wind scale. Its sustained winds were just 2 mph (3.2 kph) shy of an extremely rare Category 5.

As predicted, the storm was downgraded hours later to a still-formidable Category 3 with maximum sustained winds of 125 mph (205 kph) and higher gusts as it pushed inland to the Alabama-Georgia border.

Causing major disruptions to oil and gas production in the Gulf even before its arrival, the storm was forecast to unleash waves as high as 14 feet (4.3 meters) above normal sea levels in some areas, the National Hurricane Center said.

“My God, it’s scary. I didn’t expect all this,” said Bill Manning, 63, a grocery clerk who fled his camper van in Panama City for safer quarters in a hotel, only to see the electricity there go out. “Panama City, I don’t know if there will be much left.”

Only a couple of hours after Michael came ashore, floodwaters were more than 7-1/2 feet (2.3 meters) deep near Apalachicola on Florida’s Panhandle, National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham said.

Authorities had urged coastal residents in 20 Florida counties along a 200-mile (320-km) stretch of shoreline to head to higher ground before the storm, but anyone who had not fled by Wednesday morning was told it was too late to evacuate.

An estimated 6,000 evacuees took cover in emergency shelters, most of them in Florida, and that number was expected to swell to 20,000 across five states by week’s end, said Brad Kieserman of the American Red Cross.

Even before Michael made full landfall, it was whipping trees with its winds and flooding the town of Port St. Joe.

“It feels like you don’t know when the next tree is going to fall on top of you because its blowing so ferociously,” said Port St. Joe Mayor Bo Patterson. “It’s very, very scary. We have trees being uprooted, heavy, heavy rain.”

Palm trees are seen during a Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Florida, U.S., October 10, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. WeatherNation/via REUTERS

Palm trees are seen during a Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Florida, U.S., October 10, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. WeatherNation/via REUTERS

‘JAW-DROPPING’ STRENGTH

Patterson said about 2,500 of the town’s 3,500 people had stayed put, including about 100 in a beachside area who ignored a mandatory evacuation order. “This happened so quickly, we weren’t exactly prepared,” he said.

Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said early evacuation efforts in the area were slow.

Michael grew from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane over the course of about 40 hours.

“Satellite images of Michael’s evolution on Tuesday night were, in a word, jaw-dropping,” wrote Bob Henson, a meteorologist with weather site Weather Underground.

With minimum barometric pressure recorded at 919 millibars, a measure of hurricane strength, Michael stood as the strongest storm ever to hit Florida’s Panhandle and the most intense anywhere in the state since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Michael also ranked as the third-most powerful storm on record to make landfall in the continental United States, after Hurricane Camille on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969 and the so-called Labor Day hurricane of 1935 in the Florida Keys.

President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency for the entire state of Florida, freeing up federal assistance to supplement state and local disaster responses. He was briefed by FEMA’s Long in the Oval Office on preparations.

At mid-afternoon, about 192,000 homes and business customers were already without power in Florida alone, with more outages reported in Georgia and Alabama, utility companies said.

Michael was forecast to move across southeastern Alabama and southwestern Georgia on Wednesday night.

Helen Neal, 88, and her husband, J.W. Neal, 87, preferred to take their chances in a hotel rather than stay in their two-story Panama City Beach beachfront house about a mile away.

“We just finished renovating and updating,” she said. “We’re kind of nervous. God willing, we’ll still have some place.”

About 3,500 Florida National Guard troops were deployed to assist with evacuations and storm recovery, along with more than 1,000 search-and-rescue personnel, Governor Rick Scott said.

NHC’s Graham warned that the storm would continue to pack tropical storm-force winds when it reached the Carolinas, still reeling from severe flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence last month. Up to a foot (30 cm) of rainfall was forecast for some areas from Michael.

Scott declared a state of emergency in 35 Florida counties. Georgia Governor Nathan Deal declared an emergency for 92 counties in his state, and a state of emergency also was announced in North Carolina.

(Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in Tallahassee, Florida; Additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Panama City, Florida, Susan Heavey, Steve Holland and Roberta Rampton in Washington, Gina Cherelus and Barbara Goldberg in New York, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Liz Hampton in Houston, Andrew Hay in New MexicoWriting by Lisa Shumaker and Bill Trott; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Cynthia Osterman)