An Alabama man vanished in 1995. Last week, Idalia cleanup crews found a body

<span>Photograph: Douglas R Clifford/AP</span>
Photograph: Douglas R Clifford/AP

A decades-old car, a battered Sam’s Club membership card and human remains found in the water during a clean-up in Florida from Hurricane Idalia might have solved a cold case missing persons mystery, say authorities.

Crews clearing storm debris from the Steinhatchee River in Dixie county, close to where the 125mph cyclone struck the coast in August, made the grim discovery last week as they removed a damaged boat dock from a ramp.

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Donald Valenza, sheriff of Alabama’s Houston county, told TV station WTYV the remains were believed to be those of James Aaron Toole, who was 72 when he went missing during a road trip to Florida in 1995.

Valenza said contractors for the Florida department of environmental protection found partial human remains in the water that had been there “for some time”. A law enforcement dive team sent down the following day discovered skeletal remains inside a submerged Chevrolet Cavalier car with a 1995 Houston county license plate.

Further clues were provided by the retail warehouse membership card, and credit cards that were also found, but Valenza said formal identification could not be made until the completion of forensic testing.

A Facebook post by the Dixie county sheriff’s office contained images of divers at the scene and said the county’s medical examiner had collected the human remains. The car was also removed, it said.

Toole, according to relatives, vanished after telling family members he planned to visit a sick relative in Florida. He worked only part of his night shift at a convenience store close to his home in Pansey, Alabama, then set off in his 1987 Chevrolet Cavalier after a brief stop at his granddaughter’s house.

No trace of Toole or his car were ever found, although a woman claimed to have found his wallet in 2020, according to the Alabama Cold Case Advocacy’s Facebook page, and there was a false alarm in 2013 when authorities pulled a submerged vehicle from Florida’s Chattahoochee River.

Steinhatchee, where the remains were found last week, is about 180 miles from Toole’s hometown.

Hurricane Idalia left a trail of debris across Florida after making landfall, with some experts calculating damage at up to $20bn, making it one of the country’s most costly natural weather disasters this year.

Other recent climate events have also helped to solve historical mystery disappearances. Record low levels in Lake Mead, caused by an ongoing drought affecting the Colorado River in Nevada and Arizona, led to the discovery of a number of sets of previously underwater human remains last year.