Panhandle town left in splinters
Mexico Beach assesses direct hit by hurricane
MEXICO BEACH, Fla. — The small Gulf Coast community of Mexico Beach was known as a slice of Old Florida.
Now it lies in splinters. Hit head-on by Hurricane Michael, homes in this town of about 1,190 people were shattered or ripped from their foundations. Boats were tossed like toys. The streets closest to the water looked as if a bomb had gone off.
What the 9-foot storm surge didn’t destroy, the 155 mph winds finished off.
Now, rescuers and residents are struggling to get into the ground-zero town to assess the damage and search for the hundreds of people believed to have stayed behind.
Mishelle McPherson and her ex-husband looked for the elderly mother of a friend yesterday. The woman lived in a small cinderblock house about 150 yards from the Gulf and thought she would be OK.
Her home was reduced to crumbled cinderblocks and pieces of floor tile.
“Aggy! Aggy!” McPherson yelled. The only sound that came back was the echo from the half-demolished building and the pounding of the surf.
“Do you think her body would be here? Do you think it would have floated away?” she asked.
As she walked down the street, McPherson pointed out pieces of what had been the woman’s house: “That’s the blade from her ceiling fan. That’s her floor tile.”
Drone footage of Mexico Beach yesterday morning showed a stunning landscape of devastation. Few structures were unscathed. John Humphress, a storm chaser and drone pilot, arrived in Mexico Beach at about 5 p.m. Wednesday, a few hours after Michael slammed into the coastline. He had one word to describe what he saw: “Apocalyptic.”
State officials said 285 people in Mexico Beach had refused to leave ahead of the hurricane despite a mandatory evacuation order.
A National Guard team went into the area and found 20 survivors overnight, and more crews were pushing into the area yesterday. The fate of many other residents was unknown, authorities said.
Humphress, who spent the night in his truck on a bridge near Mexico Beach, said he didn’t see anyone dead.
Yesterday, residents who evacuated tried to return.
A Florida hurricane expert said the footage of buildings in Mexico Beach stripped to their concrete foundations was no surprise.
“This is what we expect with storm surge and high wind events,” said Craig Fugate, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a former emergency management chief for the state of Florida.
Florida has some of the most stringent hurricane building codes in the country, but they apply only to new or retrofitted structures.
Mexico Beach is on the west end of what’s called Florida’s Forgotten Coast, so named because it is not heavily developed like many of the state’s other shoreline areas, with their lavish homes and high-rise condos and hotels.
U.S. Route 98 runs right along the coast, where a few beachside restaurants offer oysters and other seafood, cocktails and a view of the Gulf of Mexico.
RUINS: Tony Feller, right, who stayed in Mexico Beach, Fla., during the hurricane, sits among the rubble, above.
DEVASTATION: Destroyed homes litter the main street of Mexico Beach after Hurricane Michael swept through.
GONE: Mishelle McPherson, climbs over the rubble of a friend’s home.