Nancy Register weeps as she is comforted by Roxie Cline, right, after she lost her home and all the contents inside to Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla., Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018. Register said she doesn't know how she and her husband will make it through this, saying they only have money to last them four more days. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Mexico Beach residents return home 1 week after Michael

October 17, 2018 - 2:24 pm

MEXICO BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Residents of hard-hit Mexico Beach began returning for the first time Wednesday since Hurricane Michael hit to see homes devastated by wind and water and pieces of their lives scattered across the Florida sand.

Nancy Register sobbed uncontrollably after finding no trace of the large camper where she'd lived with her husband Taylor. She was particularly distraught over the loss of a black-and-white photo of her mother, who died of cancer.

Husband Taylor Register found little but a stool and a keepsake rock that was given to him by a friend 40 years ago.

Residents who rode out the storm at home have been in Mexico Beach since Michael hit, but authorities told others to stay away for a week after the Category 4 storm ravaged the beach town with 155 mph (250 khp) winds and a strong storm surge.

Ron and Lanie Eden were among those returning to Mexico Beach on Wednesday morning to begin picking through the remains of the small beach house they've rented each October for years. The Edens, of Fort Knox, Kentucky, have been temporarily staying in Alabama, where they evacuated before the hurricane.

Tears streamed down Lanie Eden's face as they searched for items left behind when they evacuated the beach house before the storm. They didn't find much — just a large package of toilet paper that somehow stayed dry and their son's camp chair.

The Edens said they were stunned to see the devastation as they drove into town.

"Basically, we lost 'old Florida.' It's all gone," Lanie Eden said.

Across the region, state emergency management officials said some 124,500 customers across the Panhandle were still without power Wednesday morning and 1,157 remained in shelters.

In Bay County, home to Mexico Beach and Panama City, more than half the households and businesses remained without electricity. Inland, in Calhoun County, 98 percent of the customers didn't have power Wednesday morning, according to the emergency management website. And in Jackson County, which borders Alabama and Georgia, about 83 percent of customers were still without power.

In the meantime, in many areas devastated by the hurricane, law enforcement officials are battling looting of homes and businesses.

Bay County Sheriff's Maj. Jimmy Stanford said deputies have arrested about 10 looters each night since the storm hit. In some parts of the county, residents have spray-painted signs warning that "looters will be shot."

Callaway resident Victoria Smith told the News Herald that thieves came into her townhome while she and her four children were sleeping with the front door open to allow a breeze inside.

"I must've been so exhausted from everything in the past days I didn't even hear them come in," Smith said. "They just snatched my purse out of my hands and ran. ... It was all we had."

Often the looters have been armed, Stanford said.

"Most of our officers lost their homes, have been working 16- to 18-hour shifts with no sleep, no shower, and now they're encountering armed individuals," he said. "It's a stressful time for everyone in Bay County."

The storm killed at least 16 people in Florida, most of them in the coastal county that took a direct hit from the storm, state emergency authorities said Tuesday. That's in addition to at least 10 deaths elsewhere across the South.

The scope of the storm's fury became clearer after nearly a week of missing-persons reports and desperate searches of the Florida Panhandle neighborhoods devastated by the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in nearly 50 years.

The Florida Department of Emergency Management's count of 16 dead was twice the number previously tallied by The Associated Press, and included 12 deaths in Bay County, where the hurricane slammed ashore with 155 mph (250 kph) winds and a catastrophic storm surge last Wednesday.

Bay County also includes Tyndall Air Force Base and the community Lynn Haven, which both were heavily damaged.

The state's tally did not provide details of how the victims' deaths were storm-related, and The Associated Press was not immediately able to confirm those details for all of them. The AP's tally of deaths, in which authorities have confirmed details of how people died, stood at eight in Florida, and 18 overall including other states.

Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey said two deaths have been confirmed in his town, a man and a woman who did not evacuate and whose homes were destroyed.

Only one person remained missing in Mexico Beach, Cathey said, adding that authorities were almost certain that that person evacuated before Michael and simply hasn't been contacted.

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Associated Press writers Curt Anderson in Miami and Gary Fineout in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.

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For the latest on Hurricane Michael, visit https://www.apnews.com/tag/Hurricanes