Shortly before Hurricane Michael made landfall on Wednesday, Marshall Martin of Panama City, Florida, posted a jaunty Facebook status, assuring friends he would update every few hours until he lost power.
“I am rationing my cigars and diet Cokes,” Martin wrote at 7:14 a.m. The retired Navy man hasn’t posted since.
To Martin’s family and friends, the silence was terrifying. Others around the country have felt similar fear as they have tried to reach loved ones whose fates are unknown after a devastating storm that knocked out both roads and communications.
“It’s chaos,” says George Ruiz, a former Coast Guard rescue boat driver who runs Geaux Rescue, a nonprofit search and rescue operation. “People are desperate for news of their loved ones.”
As of Saturday, the official death toll from Michael is 17, with almost 900,000 customers without power. The hurricane carved a swath through seven states, reaching north from Florida and into Virginia. Hardest hit was the Florida Panhandle, where homes were splintered and lives upended.
As people in the region take shelter where they can and line up for food and water, loved ones search for news of those they lost contact with.
“I’ve been trying to find my son Jacob” in Panama City, says Kimberly Torres of Houston, Texas. “We haven’t heard from him since before the hurricane. I’m so scared. I’m totally devastated.”
Torres prepared to drive to Florida to find her son but was told she wouldn’t be allowed into the decimated town.
“They’re not letting anyone in,” Ruiz says. “Unless you’re a paramedic or firefighter in your official vehicle, you have to have an ID showing a local address.”
Desperate to find her son, Torres called hospitals and then shelters. So far, no one knows Jacob’s whereabouts. Torres also has posted on rescue message boards.
The boards portray stories of urgency and anguish.
“If anyone is seeing this and can help, my disabled sister lives in Panama City,” one woman wrote. “Before her phone went out she told me the roof and walls blew off and a tree has fallen on them trapping them inside the remainder of the house.”
“Front door is barricaded so they will have to break in,” another seeker wrote of a missing family. “They are hiding in interior closet.”
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For some, even good news leaves them hanging.
Kamra Cook of Phenix City, Alabama, was worried about her grandparents in Florida.
“I just know their house is old, and they were in the area that got hit,” Cook tells PEOPLE. “I kept trying to find them.”
Cook reached her grandparents by phone briefly enough to learn that their roof caved in and then was blown completely away.
“They said they’re okay, and then nothing,” Cook says. “The call dropped.”
“Cell service is deplorable right now,” Ruiz tells PEOPLE. “I’d have to drive 45 minutes from where I was working to get service to find out where I needed to go” to help people in need.
Information that does get delivered is not always consistent.
The elderly patients in a 120-bed nursing home rode out the storm safely, one employee says.
“People are still all at the facility,” says Kyler Hotlen, who answered a safety-check hotline for the Sea Breeze nursing home in Panama City.
While noting that the situation was challenging — “We have a backup generator for now, but if power isn’t restored soon we will have to do something else” — Hotlen says that corporate officials declared that all is well, all things considered.
“Everybody is reported safe, including the staff,” Holten says.
But when Misty Dewberry Brooks called the facility about her “Granny” Maxine Pepper, she couldn’t get a clear understanding of her grandmother’s whereabouts. Brooks eventually learned that the 92-year-old woman had been moved the night before, along with other residents.
After making the trek to Destin, Florida, Brooks and her family found Pepper, pictured above, at a temporary facility with only the clothes on her back. She was relegated to a mattress on the floor in a room with about 30 men and women. Brooks and family scooped up Pepper to bring her with them to Georgia.
Torres remains dedicated to finding her son Jacob. “I’m so overwhelmed right now,” Torres says. “I just want to find him.”
Martin, meanwhile, has turned up safe, his family reports.
The happy outcomes help to keep the rescuers focused on hope. “The aches and pains go away for a brief moment” when families report that their prayers have been answered, Ruiz says.
The American Red Cross has a “Safe & Well” registry for those who continue to search for loves ones, and for people to report themselves safe following the hurricane.