LYNN HAVEN, Fla. (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday got a first-hand look at the “total devastation” that Hurricane Michael brought to Florida’s Panhandle, meeting with survivors and saying that providing food and safety for them was a top priority.
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 ride in from Eglin Air Force Base about 100 miles (160 km) to the west.
“To see this personally is very tough – total devastation,” Trump said.
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.
In Lynn Haven, Trump chatted with residents and praised the crews that had cleared roads on his route. Trump, who traveled to North and South Carolina after they were hit by Hurricane Florence last month, said previous storm sites he had visited seemed to have been hit hardest by water but that Florida’s damage was more wind-related.
“Look behind you at these massive trees ripped out of the earth,” Trump said to reporters, likening the storm to an “extremely wide tornado.”
Upon his arrival at Eglin from Washington, Trump said the day’s biggest objective was “just making sure everyone is safe, that they’re fed.”
“You know many of these people, they have no homes,” he said. “Some of them have no trace of a home … so our big thing is feeding, water and safety.”
Trump was accompanied by Florida Governor Rick Scott, a fellow Republican who is running for a seat in the U.S. Senate against an incumbent Democrat in the Nov. 6 congressional elections in which their party is fighting to retain control of Congress. Before the helicopter flight, Trump and Scott offered words of mutual praise.
The Trumps also planned to visit part of neighboring Georgia that was hit by Michael before returning to the White House on Monday evening, the White House said.
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.
Michael hit the Florida Panhandle with 155 mph (250 kph) winds as a Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.
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, a town of about 1,000 people that 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,” Al Cathey, mayor of Mexico Beach, told Florida media.
Cathey said 46 people who had not evacuated remained unaccounted for on Sunday.
Water service was restored to some in Panama City on Monday but Bay County officials said it was not yet safe to drink. Home owners were advised to keep toilet flushes to a minimum because the sewer system was operating only at half capacity.
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.
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 and Bernie Woodall in Florida; Editing by Will Dunham