Hur­ri­cane sur­vivors wan­der piles of de­bris, search for the miss­ing

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - REGION - BY RUSS BYNUM

MEX­ICO BEACH, Fla. — Tom Gar­cia watched in ter­ror as fin­gers of wa­ter pushed in­land across the beach and be­gan fill­ing up his home.

His wife handed him a drill and Gar­cia used screws to pin his front and back door shut. But soon the storm surge from Hur­ri­cane Michael was up to his chest. His dogs sat on his bed as it floated. He said it took all of his strength to hold his slid­ing door shut as the wa­ters out­side the glass rose higher than those flood­ing the house.

“It was life or death,” Gar­cia said through tears Fri­day as he walked amid the de­struc­tion in Mex­ico Beach.

Michael was one of the most pow­er­ful hur­ri­canes to ever make land­fall in the U.S., and this Gulf Coast com­mu­nity of about 1,000 peo­ple was in its bulls­eye Wed­nes­day. While most res­i­dents fled ahead of the storm’s ar­rival, oth­ers stayed to face the hur­ri­cane.

They barely es­caped as homes were smashed from their foun­da­tions, neigh­bor­hoods got sub­merged, and bro­ken boards, sheet me­tal and other de­bris flew through the air.

Hec­tor Mo­rales, a 57-yearold restau­rant cook, never even thought about evac­u­at­ing. He grew up in Puerto Rico, where he said “you learn how to sur­vive a storm.”

His mo­bile home isn’t on the beach. But the canal lined with boat docks be­hind his home quickly over­flowed as the hur­ri­cane came in­land. Soon, Mo­rales said, his mo­bile home started float­ing.

“The wa­ter kept com­ing so fast, it started com­ing in from ev­ery­where,” he said as he sat out­side on a bro­ken set of stairs ly­ing atop a mat­tress and other storm de­bris. “I had about 3 feet of wa­ter in my house. That’s when I de­cided to jump.”

He got through a win­dow of his home on to the top of his car out­side when Mo­rales saw two neigh­bors wad­ing through the rush­ing surge. He swam out and grabbed a util­ity pole, then reached out and helped steady the wad­ing cou­ple. They fought their way onto a fish­ing boat that had been tied to a palm tree and climbed in­side.

Mo­rales left his neigh­bors in a bath­room be­low the boat’s deck, while he sat in the cap­tain’s chair. He said they stayed in the boat for six hours be­fore the winds calmed and the surge re­ceded.

“I lost ev­ery­thing — my clothes, wal­let, credit cards,” he said. “But I made it.”

Bill Shockey, 86, re­fused when his daugh­ter pleaded with him to leave Mex­ico Beach. He said he didn’t want to leave be­hind his col­lec­tion of “Gone with the Wind” dishes and an­tique dolls. So he stashed those valu­ables up high in a closet be­fore head­ing to his daugh­ter’s newly built two-story home next door.

With a pocket full of cigars and his cat named Andy, Shockey watched the hur­ri­cane roll in from an up­stairs bed­room. The wind shred­ded the roof of his sin­gle-story home. Wa­ter rose nearly to the top of his garage door. A neigh­bor’s home across the street got shoved off its foun­da­tion.

Was he scared? “Wor­ried, I think, is more like it,” Shockey said.

His daugh­ter’s home took in some flood­wa­ters down­stairs, but was oth­er­wise un­scathed. Shockey’s own home of 24 years didn’t fare so well, though his col­lectibles sur­vived.

“It’s a wipe out,” he said, adding he plans to sell his prop­erty rather than re­build. “When­ever they want, I’m go­ing to move in with my son in Ge­or­gia.”

For years, Hal Sum­mers has man­aged Killer Seafood, a Mex­ico Beach restau­rant known for its tuna tacos. Michael de­stroyed the eatery as well as Sum­mers’ town­home on the beach. Sum­mers rode out the storm at his par­ent’s house nearby. They had evac­u­ated, but an el­derly friend was stay­ing there and Sum­mers promised to watch him.

Sum­mers knew they had to get out when, about 30 min­utes af­ter the storm made land­fall, wa­ter surg­ing into the home’s kitchen rose up to his neck. He opened the front door and fell in deeper when he tried to step onto front stairs that had washed away.

AP PHOTO/DAVID GOLD­MAN

A ban­ner hangs from a dam­aged home Fri­day as a South Florida ur­ban search and res­cue team checks for sur­vivors in Mex­ico Beach, Fla.

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