Volunteers rush to aid survivors after Hurricane Michael

FOUNTAIN, Fla., Oct 24 (Reuters) - After a fitful night of throbbing abdominal pain, curled up in a ball inside her hurricane-battered home trying to wish away the agony, 21-year-old Angelena Sawyer could barely function, let alone tend to her infant daughter.

Writhing in misery, Sawyer had no idea she was suffering from acute appendicitis. Neither did her parents nor her husband, Jacob Sibilia, fully realize the gravity of the situation as they coped with the larger crisis of surviving the aftermath of a natural disaster.

A week already had passed since Hurricane Michael laid waste to rural Bay County, Florida, leaving Sawyer's family, like many others, essentially stranded without electricity, phone service or running water. They had little if any gasoline, a 3-month-old to care for, and Sawyer's stepmother, Jessica Melvin, was suffering from an infected foot injury.

20 PHOTOS
Volunteers rush to aid survivors after Hurricane Michael
See Gallery
Volunteers rush to aid survivors after Hurricane Michael

Hurricane Michael survivor Yvette Beasley stands in her front yard during a wellbeing check by a 50 Star Search and Rescue team in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 17, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

A 50 Star Search and Rescue team passes a sign reading "Slow Watch for Children," knocked over by Hurricane Michael, along the swollen Chipola River in Florida, U.S., October 18, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Jessica Melvin hugs her step-daughter Angelena Sawyer (R) while waiting for an ambulance arranged by a 50 Star Search and Rescue team for Sawyer's acute untreated appendicitis following Hurricane Michael in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 17, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

50 Star Search and Rescue team leader Zach Smith treats Cody Hatcher's foot wound at a Hurricane Michael relief center at Fountain's Victory Tabernacle church in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 17, 2018.

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

A search and rescue team from 50 Star Search and Rescue follows ambulances after Hurricane Michael in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 18, 2018.

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

50 Star Search and Rescue team member John Basehore brings Angelena Sawyer (C) and Jacob Sibilia (R) home after Sawyer was taken to the hospital for untreated acute appendicitis, found during a wellbeing check by a 50 Star Search and Rescue team earlier in the day, following Hurricane Michael in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 17, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

50 Star Search and Rescue team members Robert Pepper (L) and John Basehore study a map of the search area following Hurricane Michael in Youngstown, Florida, U.S., October 17, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

50 Star Search and Rescue team leader Zach Smith (R) checks the damage from Hurricane Michael to the home of Glenda Kronfol in Youngstown, Florida, U.S., October 18, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Angelena Sawyer (C) and Jacob Sibilia (L) look at their three-month-old daughter Seraphina as 50 Star Search and Rescue team leader Zach Smith (R) checks on the medical condition of Sawyer, who required an ambulance to treat acute appendicitis, following Hurricane Michael in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 17, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

A search and rescue team from 50 Star Search and Rescue works amid debris from Hurricane Michael in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 18, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Denny Chevillot greets a search and rescue team from 50 Star Search and Rescue following Hurricane Michael along the Chipola River in Florida, U.S., October 18, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

50 Star Search and Rescue team member John Basehore (C kneeling) checks the medical condition of Angelena Sawyer (L) as Jacob Sibilia and her step-mother Jessica Melvin (R) look on, following Hurricane Michael in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 17, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Angelena Sawyer, who has untreated acute appendicitis, waits for medics to arrive during a wellbeing check by a 50 Star Search and Rescue team following Hurricane Michael in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 17, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

The Lama family hold hot meals prepared by Operation BBQ Relief and delivered by a 50 Star Search and Rescue team following Hurricane Michael in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 17, 2018.

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

A 50 Star Search and Rescue team passes a no trespassing sign while working on the swollen Chipola River following Hurricane Michael in Florida, U.S., October 18, 2018.

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

50 Star Search and Rescue team member Robert Pepper clears debris from the yard of Yvette Beasley after Hurricane Michael in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 17, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Medics take Angelena Sawyer to the ambulance for her untreated acute appendicitis during a wellbeing check by a 50 Star Search and Rescue team following Hurricane Michael in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 17, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

50 Star Search and Rescue team member Zach Smith cleans and bandages a foot wound on Jessica Melvin following Hurricane Michael at her home in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 17, 2018.

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

50 Star Search and Rescue team members John Basehore (L) and Zach Smith study a map of their search area following Hurricane Michael in Panama City Beach, Florida, U.S., October 17, 2018.

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

50 Star Search and Rescue team members and volunteers unload a pallet of MREs (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) at a relief center at Fountain's Victory Tabernacle church in Fountain, Florida, U.S., October 18, 2018.

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

The turning point was a random visit that day by three disaster volunteers - Zach Smith, John Basehore and Robert Pepper - checking on residents door to door in the sparsely populated Florida Panhandle community of Fountain, northeast of Panama City.

Assessing Sawyer's condition, they realized she needed immediate medical attention. While Smith cleaned and bandaged Melvin's foot, his colleagues called the local fire department and arranged for an ambulance to transport Sawyer to the nearest hospital some 30 miles away.

Doctors who treated her later told Sawyer her appendix had nearly ruptured. The intervention of Smith, Basehore and Pepper had likely saved her life.

At least 29 deaths in Florida have been attributed to Michael, which slammed ashore on Oct. 10 as a Category 4 hurricane and the most powerful on record ever to hit the Panhandle region.

"If it wasn't for this crew and these men, I wouldn't have made it to the hospital," Sawyer told Reuters in a text message following her ordeal.

15 PHOTOS
Aerial photos show Hurricane Michael's impact
See Gallery
Aerial photos show Hurricane Michael's impact
In this image made from video and provided by SevereStudios.com, damage from Hurricane Michael is seen in Mexico Beach, Fla. on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. Search-and-rescue teams fanned out across the Florida Panhandle to reach trapped people in Michael's wake Thursday as daylight yielded scenes of rows upon rows of houses smashed to pieces by the third-most powerful hurricane on record to hit the continental U.S. (SevereStudios.com via AP)
In this image made from video and provided by SevereStudios.com, damage from Hurricane Michael is seen in Mexico Beach, Fla. on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. Search-and-rescue teams fanned out across the Florida Panhandle to reach trapped people in Michael's wake Thursday as daylight yielded scenes of rows upon rows of houses smashed to pieces by the third-most powerful hurricane on record to hit the continental U.S. (SevereStudios.com via AP)
In this image made from video and provided by SevereStudios.com, damage from Hurricane Michael is seen in Mexico Beach, Fla. on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. Search-and-rescue teams fanned out across the Florida Panhandle to reach trapped people in Michael's wake Thursday as daylight yielded scenes of rows upon rows of houses smashed to pieces by the third-most powerful hurricane on record to hit the continental U.S. (SevereStudios.com via AP)
In this image made from video and provided by SevereStudios.com, damage from Hurricane Michael is seen in Mexico Beach, Fla. on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. Search-and-rescue teams fanned out across the Florida Panhandle to reach trapped people in Michael's wake Thursday as daylight yielded scenes of rows upon rows of houses smashed to pieces by the third-most powerful hurricane on record to hit the continental U.S. (SevereStudios.com via AP)
People walk past homes destroyed by Hurricane Michael are shown in this aerial photo Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018, in Mexico Beach, Fla. The devastation inflicted by Hurricane Michael came into focus Thursday with rows upon rows of homes found smashed to pieces, and rescue crews began making their way into the stricken areas in hopes of accounting for hundreds of people who may have stayed behind. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
A home is destroyed from Hurricane Michael Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018, in Mexico Beach, Fla. Hurricane Michael made landfall Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane with 155 mph (250 kph) winds and a storm surge of 9 feet (2.7 meters). (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Damaged houses are seen during a U.S. Coast Guard aerial assessment of coastal areas affected by Hurricane Michael near Apalachicola, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 2nd Class Ashley J. Johnson/Handout via REUTERS. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
A capsized boat is seen during a U.S. Coast Guard aerial assessment of coastal areas affected by Hurricane Michael near Apalachicola, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 2nd Class Ashley J. Johnson/Handout via REUTERS. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
A boat yard is seen during a U.S. Coast Guard aerial assessment of coastal areas affected by Hurricane Michael near Apalachicola, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 2nd Class Ashley J. Johnson/Handout via REUTERS. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
A roof over a boat storage building is collapsed following Hurricane Michael Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018, in Panama City Beach, Fla. Hurricane Michael made landfall Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane with 155 mph (250 kph) winds and a storm surge of 9 feet (2.7 meters). (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
An industrial area is seen during a U.S. Coast Guard aerial assessment of coastal areas affected by Hurricane Michael near Apalachicola, Florida, U.S. October 11, 2018. U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 2nd Class Ashley J. Johnson/Handout via REUTERS. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
In this image made from video and provided by SevereStudios.com, damage from Hurricane Michael is seen in Mexico Beach, Fla. on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. Search-and-rescue teams fanned out across the Florida Panhandle to reach trapped people in Michael's wake Thursday as daylight yielded scenes of rows upon rows of houses smashed to pieces by the third-most powerful hurricane on record to hit the continental U.S. (SevereStudios.com via AP)
In this image made from video and provided by SevereStudios.com, damage from Hurricane Michael is seen in Mexico Beach, Fla. on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. Search-and-rescue teams fanned out across the Florida Panhandle to reach trapped people in Michael's wake Thursday as daylight yielded scenes of rows upon rows of houses smashed to pieces by the third-most powerful hurricane on record to hit the continental U.S. (SevereStudios.com via AP)
Debris from Hurricane Michael fills a lot Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018, in Mexico Beach, Fla. Hurricane Michael made landfall Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane with 155 mph (250 kph) winds and a storm surge of 9 feet (2.7 meters). (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Homes washed away by Hurricane Michael are shown in this aerial photo Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018, in Mexico Beach, Fla. Michael made landfall Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane with 155 mph (250 kph) winds and a storm surge of 9 feet (2.7 meters). (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

The three men, all U.S. military veterans, were part of the volunteer group 50 Star Search and Rescue, one of dozens of such outfits formed during previous flood disasters in Texas and Louisiana and reactivated in Florida when Michael struck.

Many, including 50 Star, operated under the banner of CrowdSource Rescue, a larger Houston-based network that coordinated and supported teams on the ground with thousands of volunteers working remotely around the country.

Specialized technology was a key to their work.

Their search teams relied on a digital application that enables cell phones to operate as walkie-talkie radios, as well as an Uber-like app with global positioning satellite (GPS) map to pinpoint those in distress.

Much of their effort was devoted to searching for people whom loved ones reported missing in the hardest hit shorefront communities of Mexico Beach, Panama City and Panama City Beach. Teams also fanned out to isolated areas farther inland to deliver meals, water and medical assistance.

Their mission, said Smith, 30, was to "make sure that medically everyone is safe and sound and that people have supplies and that there's no medical emergencies."

After 11 days, CrowdSource teams succeeded in locating more than 2,800 people initially unaccounted for - all found alive - and turned over about 30 unresolved cases to local authorities, the group's co-founder, Matthew Marchetti, told Reuters. The groups served some 4,500 meals to survivors during the past weekend alone, he said.

While reinforcing the strained resources of official search-and-rescue teams, the volunteers worked largely independently of them, Marchetti said.

Valerie Sale, a Bay County emergency management spokeswoman, said an almost total lack of cell phone and internet service that lasted nearly a week prevented coordination with outside volunteers, but "we're grateful for their efforts, for sure."

(Reporting by Brian Snyder in Fountain, Florida; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Diane Craft)

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.