LYNN HAVEN, FLORIDA – U.S. President Donald Trump surveyed the damage from Hurricane Michael and met with survivors on Monday, saying food and housing were the top priorities for those hit in Florida’s storm-ravaged Panhandle.
“To see this personally is very tough — total devastation,” Trump said in Lynn Haven, a city of about 18,500 people near Panama City in northwestern Florida that was his first stop.
Trump and first lady Melania Trump passed out bottles of water at an aid center after taking a helicopter ride into the hardest-hit area from Eglin Air Force Base about 100 miles (160 km) to the west.
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.
“You know many of these people, they have no homes,” Trump said upon arrival at Eglin from Washington. “Some of them have no trace of a home … so our big thing is feeding, water and safety.”
He said the day’s biggest objective was “just making sure everyone is safe, that they’re fed.”
Trump was accompanied by Florida Gov. 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 tour, 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.
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, 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,” Al Cathey, mayor of Mexico Beach, a town of about 1,000, 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.
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 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.
Trump last month visited North and South Carolina after they were hit by Hurricane Florence.