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Determining FL Death Toll Difficult    10/16 06:14

   TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- In Florida, a grim task is unwinding slowly: 
Finding out how many people were killed in Hurricane Michael.

   The storm that ravaged Florida's Panhandle left incredible destruction 
stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the state border, but getting a firm 
grasp on how many died is proving somewhat elusive.

   The state has officially acknowledged just two deaths so far --- and one 
death was in northeast Florida, far from the ground-zero fury of the Category 4 
storm.

   Meanwhile, search and rescue teams have crawled and walked through thousands 
of buildings and ruins for days in places like Mexico Beach, which was 
virtually wiped out when Michael roared ashore last week. The Associated Press 
has put the overall death toll at 17 so far, including one death in Mexico 
Beach confirmed by a search and rescue team and six others confirmed by local 
officials in Florida. In other states, there are 10 confirmed deaths.

   "Unfortunately there are going to more fatalities than people want to 
admit," said State Rep. Halsey Beshears, a Republican whose district includes 
several of the counties hammered by Michael. "If you stayed in Mexico Beach, 
there's no way you could have survived. I think more fatalities are going to 
show up every day."

   Joanne Garone Behnke called it "torture" awaiting news about whether her 
79-year-old aunt who stayed in Mexico Beach had survived.

   Right after the storm hit, Brock Long, the chief of the Federal Emergency 
Management Agency, said he expected the death toll to rise after hearing 
reports that some people refused to evacuate before Michael's landfall.

   But both Long and Gov. Rick Scott, however, sidestepped questions late 
Sunday after they returned from an all-day trip to some of the hard-hit 
communities.

   "I'm very hopeful that everybody is going to be found alive and that 
everybody is going to survive this," Scott said.

   Right after the storm, state officials said thousands of calls inquiring 
about missing people came in to authorities and non-profit groups. FEMA did 
announce Monday that search and rescue teams along with the Coast Guard and 
National Guard had rescued or assisted more than 4,000 people in storm-impacted 
areas and that they had checked on thousands of homes and buildings.

   State officials say they will announce storm-related fatalities once they 
are certified by local medical examiners who have gone through the steps of 
positively identifying those who died and performing an autopsy to determine 
the cause of death.

   Part of the problem state emergency officials say is that the medical 
examiner office responsible for certifying deaths in several of the hardest-hit 
counties was without power or water until Monday.

   Plans to bring in a mobile morgue unit were scrapped over the weekend, but 
state teams did bring in refrigerated trucks to four cities that can be used 
for both storm victims and to assist funeral homes that have lost power.

   Florida officials point out they have used the same process in the past, but 
this comes amid the political backdrop of what happened in Puerto Rico.

   Last month, President Donald Trump tweeted that "3,000 people did not die" 
in the hurricanes that hit the island last year. He also falsely alleged that 
the official death toll was part of a plot by Democrats to make him look bad. 
Republicans in Florida, including Scott, disagreed with Trump and said they did 
not dispute the death toll numbers.

   But for some families, the wait is proving to be unbearable.

   "I've been on the phone to reporters, to fire chiefs, to heads of task force 
from Miami to you name it I've called them. I've called every hospital," Garone 
Behnke said Monday as she stopped to read a text from the fire chief in Mexico 
Beach.

   Another wait and see.

   "We're still working on it ... we'll keep you posted," the text read.


(KA)

 
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