PANAMA CITY — A recovery effort of unprecedented magnitude is being staged out of parking lot trailers, damaged buildings and AT&T "burner" cellphones as work begins to rebuild Bay County in the wake of Hurricane Michael.
The parking lots of the 23rd Street Target and Panama City Mall were full Saturday with hundreds of vehicles from all over the Southeast — sheriff's offices, power crews, firefighters, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, telecommunications and military — literally staging an army of aid.
At the center of it was the Bay County Sheriff's Department trailer — a little damaged from fallen storm debris, but still going strong as the hub of law enforcement operations after two days of search and rescue efforts.
Meetings were continuously being held outside, and officials, such as Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, were in and out.
"I just got off the phone with Verizon, and they are working hard," Patronis said.
Verizon is the main cellphone provider for the area, and the lack of service — due to much of the infrastructure, such as underground fiber-optic cables, being severely impacted — has added another layer of complication to recovery efforts, making it difficult for anyone to communicate.
AT&T and some other cellphone providers are maintaining limited service.
At this time, there is no official death count from the hurricane, Patronis said. But, he added,"with a storm of this magnitude there is going to be loss of life."
The Health Department is starting to create a data base of survivors that people will be able to use to check that status of relatives in hard-hit areas. For more information, go to Patronis' Twitter page, @JimmyPatronis.
All of the state roads in the area are expected to be cleared by the end of Saturday, which should help speed up the re-entry process.
People with identification showing they are Bay County residents, or have a verifiable reason for coming, are being allowed in, according to Patronis.
On the east side of the Hathaway Bridge it likely will be weeks before power and water services are restored. If people have a safe place outside the county to stay, officials are recommending they do not return.
"Tell loved ones to stay put (outside the disaster area)," Patronis said.