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FEMA Assesses Needs Of Rural Residents In Florida's Panhandle


We ride along next with search-and-rescue teams after Hurricane Michael. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang traveled through Florida's Jackson County with a crew from FEMA.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: A large paper map laying out the more than 900 square miles of Jackson County is spread across a folding table in a makeshift command center.

BOBBY GARZA: This is 69 right here. This is 90. We'll just take a left on Poplar Springs. We'll hit this real quick. We'll check this.

WANG: The search-and-rescue team of Virginia Task Force 1 is about to start its fourth day here. They're trying to drive down every single road in a remote part of Florida's panhandle, trying to figure out what people here need - emergency medical care, help covering their roofs, directions to the nearest donation site.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Over radio) All right. We're going to start heading out. You still up at the gate?

KIT HESSEL: (Over radio) Yeah. Copy that. We're on River Forest Road.

WANG: Chief Kit Hessel is behind the wheel, leading a caravan of trucks past the fallen power poles, longleaf pine snapped in half and washed-out cotton fields Hurricane Michael left behind. Rescue Specialist Adam Sheetz rides in the front seat.

ADAM SHEETZ: This is probably my third or fourth hurricane deployment. This is the worst that I've seen.

HESSEL: How are you, ma'am?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good. How are you?

HESSEL: We're with Virginia Task Force 1 with FEMA. We're just checking on people to see how everybody is in the area.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you. That's very kind of y'all.

WANG: Chief Hessel checks in with a couple of residents who are living with an elderly relative. Power is still out for many here, and generators roar behind almost every conversation. Most of the roads here have been cleared, but storm debris still blocks some unpaved driveways. Virginia Task Force 1 is the first outside help Mackiel Lollie has seen come through.

MACKIEL LOLLIE: Well, we need a whole lot of work to clean up all these trees that's fell down. And the tops is off of the houses. Some of them just blowed (ph) away. That right out there, ain't nothing left of it but the frame.

WANG: Lollie just turned 81. He lives with his son, Ricky, who uses a wheelchair. He points out a church across the way that lost its roof. Around the corner, a toppled tree has left a hole in a trailer home and now looks chewed through in the middle.

LOLLIE: It's terrible, but we're all living. That's the good thing right there.

WANG: Just a short drive away, a neat row of azaleas stands in front of a house topped with blue tarps and plastic sheeting. Barbara Nelson has been staying here with her daughter.

BARBARA NELSON: I just really need some place to go that will be comfortable for me. Really, I just need my lights and water turned on at my home, and then I can go there. You know, there's trees everywhere and damage to my house. But as long as I can get in there with - have cool air, I'll be happy.

WANG: Nelson works the midnight shift at a nursing home. The electricity and water are still out at her own house, but she says she's not sure how much longer she can stay with her daughter.

SHEETZ: We'll give you this piece of paper. So here's the shelter information. But I've found the closest one for you is about five miles away at Providence Church. They'll take good care of you.

NELSON: OK. Thank you so much. They got room, you think? They got room available?


WANG: Cellphone service is still spotty in parts of Jackson County, so rescue specialists like Adam Sheetz have been stepping in as messengers, relaying information about relief services in person and lending a friendly ear. Sheetz says, before the hurricane, many living here were already just getting by.

SHEETZ: Something like this is a huge deal. I mean, they just don't have anything. And that's why it's so important to hit every house, you know, and talk to folks so they know that, hey, there's people out there that do care.

WANG: And that they're not forgotten. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Jackson County, Fla.


INSKEEP: Hansi's story was produced by our colleague Evie Stone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.
Evie Stone is the Supervising Editor at Weekend Edition. She collaborates with show staff and newsroom colleagues to ensure that Weekend Edition covers essential news, tells human stories and occasionally makes the audience bark with laughter.