Chief David Collier
Battalion chief: We have to put emotions aside
02:55 - Source: CNN
Panama City, Florida CNN  — 

Hurricane Michael tore a hole in the roof of Scott Flitcraft’s home, and he’s been dealing with water damage ever since. But the division chief of the Panama City Fire Department has other things on his mind.

It’s been almost five days since the Category 4 storm slammed into the Florida Panhandle. At least 18 people are dead, more than 435,000 homes are without power, and responders are working around the clock to clear affected areas and reach people in their homes. In the Mexico Beach area, 30 to 35 people are still unaccounted for.

At one point Sunday, there was a backlog of 500 emergency calls, including requests for welfare checks, medical calls and reports of people on respirators running out of oxygen.

Hurricane Michael's aftermath in Panama City, Florida.

Power is spotty and communication with the outside world is sporadic. The only available Wi-Fi spot in Flitcraft’s neighborhood is running off electricity through his wife’s car, he said, and she’s burned half a tank of gas since Friday keeping it going.

Flitcraft is also focused on the well-being of the first responders from his department and those from across the country who have come to Bay County to assist in search and rescue.

Food is scarce, and distribution points have been set up for meals, food and water. But fire halls are running out of food, Flitcraft said. He gets choked up describing how community members cooked chicken Saturday night and brought them the last of what they had.

Panama City Battalion Chief David Collier's home was damaged in Hurricane Michael.

Few homes or families in Bay County were untouched by Michael’s devastation, including those of first responders. Their homes have been destroyed and their families displaced, “so we’re having to deal with that as we’re dealing with this incident as well,” said Panama City Battalion Chief David Collier, whose home was also damaged.

“It is very difficult, especially being in the type of job we’re in. While we’re here at work we’ve kind of got to put those emotions and things that are going on in our personal lives aside, because we have to worry about what’s going on here. We have to worry about our own personnel and the citizens we’re trying to protect.”

First responders set up base camp

Skilled responders from federal, state and local governments have been working with voluntary agencies and the private sector to save lives.

According to FEMA, as of Sunday afternoon, responders had performed more than 58 evacuations, 403 rescues or assists, 3,362 shelter-in-place checks, and 128 animal assists. Structural assessments were completed on 7,257 structures in Florida, the agency said in a statement.

Jacksonville Fire Rescue Lt. Joshua Dixon.

In 11 years with the Jacksonville, Florida, Fire and Rescue Department, Lt. Joshua Dixon said he’s never seen anything like the damage wrought by Michael.

“This is the worst natural disaster I’ve ever seen,” he said. “The pictures don’t show the real magnitude.”

Dixon is part of a team of firefighters from Jacksonville Fire and Rescue that specializes in urban search and rescue, Florida Task Force 5 Urban Search and Rescue. Its members receive specialized training for situations that tend to arise from extreme weather, such as structural collapses, confined-space rescues, wildland search and rescue and swiftwater rescue.

At least 20 fire departments have sent similar teams to the region. The parking lot of Panama City Mall serves as their base camp and logistical headquarters. It’s a sprawling maze of air-conditioned sleeping tents, shower tents and a food truck surrounded by big box chain stores. Dixon likens it to a “giant hunting camp.”

The interior of a sleeping tent for firefighters at their base camp in a Panama City mall.

Dixon said many members of these elite firefighting teams were awake for almost three days after the storm hit. His unit, comprised of firefighters from Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana, found people stuck inside homes that were boarded up or trapped by fallen debris or trees.

They are still finding people each time they go out, Dixon said. On Sunday, responders went out in boats because some streets are still not accessible, he said.

First responders help other first responders

In some cases, firefighters are helping out other firefighters, said Mark Treglio, spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters.

When disasters strike in a community, first responders barely have time to tend to their own homes, he said. That’s when the IAFF Foundation steps in to help so responders “can get back to the firehouse” as soon as possible, he said. Assistance can come in the form of home repairs, a generator, a chainsaw, vaccinations or peer counseling, he said.

So far in areas affected by Michael, the IAFF Foundations has helped shore up 25 homes of first responders in the region, he said. He expects there will be more in need in the coming days.

“We try to get things back to normal as soon as possible,” he said.

“The whole goal is to be able to make sure that they are able to continue to go to the firehouse and continue to search their communities and serve in a good positive manner.”

Meridith Edwards and Scott McLean reported in Panama City, Florida. Emanuella Grinberg wrote this story in Atlanta. Martin Savidge and Angela Barajas contributed reporting.