Volunteer search teams born of prior disasters reactivated in Florida

(Reuters) – Volunteer search-and-rescue networks formed during previous flood disasters in Texas and Louisiana sprang into action in Florida this week following Hurricane Michael, providing a boost to authorities hit by electricity and communications outages.

Homes destroyed after Hurricane Michael smashed into Florida’s northwest coast in Mexico Beach, October 11, 2018. Chris O’Meara/Pool via REUTERS

By Friday, two days after Michael plowed into Florida’s Panhandle as one of the fiercest hurricanes ever to strike the U.S. mainland, there was no official word on the number unaccounted for in beachfront communities affected by the storm.

But the all-volunteer group CrowdSource Rescue said its search teams were trying to locate more than 2,100 people. Loved ones reported the majority unaccounted for, while a smaller number found themselves stranded and sought help, group co-founder Matthew Marchetti said.

Most of the search effort focused on Bay and Gulf counties, which took the brunt of the storm while Panama City and Mexico Beach, the towns nearest Michael’s landfall accounted for the largest numbers reported missing, he added.

A man walks along a street following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Marchetti said the search teams, made up mostly of off-duty police and firefighters, also had either rescued or accounted for 345 other individuals reported to Houston-based CrowdSource Rescue.

That organization, set up in response to deadly flooding that swept the Gulf Coast of Texas after Hurricane Harvey last year, has about 650 rescuers on the ground in Florida this week, Marchetti told Reuters. He said 3,500 more were helping coordinate efforts from afar.

To communicate, they relied on a digital application called Zello that lets cell phones send and receive short-wave radio transmissions, as well as an Uber-like app with global-positioning satellite (GPS) technology to pinpoint those in distress.

Similar volunteer outfits operating under the name Cajun Navy and formed in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 also sent teams to Florida.

The private, non-profit efforts add to a force of more than 1,700 government-based searchers across Florida, Governor Rick Scott’s office said in a statement. Those include 20 urban rescue teams, seven swift-water rescue teams and nearly 300 ambulances.

Aerial photo shows damaged and destroyed homes after Hurricane Michael smashed into Florida’s northwest coast in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Dronebase

Relatives of people who defied evacuation orders in Mexico Beach, a town where the storm obliterated shorefront neighborhoods, also posted messages on the Facebook pages of law enforcement pleading for help finding relatives.

But widespread power outages and disruptions in landline and cellular phone networks hampered authorities’ communications with each other and the public, said Ruth Corley, a spokeswoman for the Bay County Sheriff’s Department.

With two television stations knocked off the air for two days, authorities had to rely on a college radio station to broadcast public service bulletins.

Except for emergency 911 systems, authorities there were virtually without telephone or internet service until late on Friday.

“We didn’t have anything,” Corley said. “We’ve been writing things down on pieces of paper. We’re doing what we can with the minimal media that we have.”

Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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