Searchers find body in hurricane-stricken town
MEXICO BEACH, Fla. — The National Guard unit raced to clear rubble and power lines as it made its way along U.S. Highway 98. The goal: Blaze a path to this isolated beach town on Florida’s Gulf Coast, the place that bore the most devastating impact of Hurricane Michael’s landfall, so rescues could begin Friday.
Members of the guard unit from nearby Bonifay, Fla., knew all about Mexico Beach — population 1,072 — where in the past they had gone swimming in the surf and waved hello to friends at the Dollar General. But once they emerged onto the spot where the town had been, the devastation was nearly unfathomable.
The public pier had washed away. Entire blocks of houses were wiped clear off their foun-
dations. The town’s landmark El Governor Motel was gutted, its heated pool and Tiki Bar a pile of detritus, colorful beach umbrellas shredded and upended. The popular RV park looked like a junk yard. Beach houses were pulled off their pilings. Toucan’s, a favorite seafood restaurant, lay in ruin.
“It was just gut-wrenching,” said Staff Sgt. Andrew Pliscofsky. It was his fourth hurricane rescue operation, but he had never seen anything like it. “It was like a monster came through and kicked it all down. This all just shocked us.”
Michael hit the beach here Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane with 155 mph winds, slamming into the coast and tearing through inland communities. Though people knew the storm was coming, many thought it would not be as ferocious as it became.
As the National Guard arrived, Thomas Jett was out surveying the town with this dog. He had waited too long to evacuate and then had to turn back when his van was nearly blown off the road.
“There’s not a word in the dictionary to explain how bad it was,” Jett said. “It’s like the end of the world. … It’s amazing anybody’s still alive, still standing. … In the blink of an eye it’s all gone. It’s horrible.”
Although Michael weakened as it moved north, downgraded to a tropical storm Thursday, it continued its assault into early Friday as it chugged through Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. It left nearly 20 dead in its wake, victims of felled trees, airborne debris and flash flooding.
The death toll likely will go higher; emergency crews are still struggling to reach some of the hardesthit areas on the Florida Panhandle, where homes were toppled and their contents strewn, officials said.
“Unfortunately, I think you’re going to see it climb,” William “Brock” Long, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said of the death toll at a briefing Friday. “I hope we don’t see it climb dramatically. But I have reasons to believe — we haven’t gotten into some of the hardest hit areas, particularly the Mexico Beach area.” Only one fatality had been discovered in the town as of Friday evening but much of the community was flattened.
The storm headed out into the Atlantic on Friday, but many could feel the impact for days, as more than 1 million people from Florida to Virginia were left without power.
Along with residential areas, officials said Hurricane Michael caused significant damage at Tyndall AFB, which is adjacent to Mexico Beach on the Gulf. The “base took a beating,” Col. Brian Laidlaw, the in chain stallation ’s commander and commander of the 325th Fighter Wing, wrote in a letter to the people who call it home, saying that the base requires “extensive cleanup and repairs.” The base’s fleet of F-22 fighter jets were unscathed.
On Friday, under a clear sky, Brenna McAllister, a former combat medic in Afghanistan, worked with other volunteers to clear debris from more than 12 miles of road outside of Panama City. They used saws to buzz through fallen trees and hauled away debris, including waterlogged mattresses and washing-machine parts to create a path to homes that were effectively cut off from the world.
“All the emergency services — everything — the radio towers were down, the Internet, the phones,” said McAllister, who works as a massage therapist and will probably be out of a job because so many of the hotels where she works were destroyed in Panama City.
“We just got a convoy of veterans trained in working in war zones and went to work. It gives us a sense of purpose.”
In Mexico Beach on Friday, rescue crews began their painstaking house-to house search, offering stunned residents water and checking on their welfare. In return, a peppering of questions: When would the power be back? When would FEMA arrive?
“We’re looking for anybody who is trapped,” said cadet Matthew Pippins. What they did find were stunned and shocked people who were glad to see the first officials in days.
Romark Davis, 7, walks through the wreckage of the mobile home park where he lives in Panama City, Fla., on Friday. Hurricane Michael left death and destruction as it moved through the South and out into the Atlantic.
Blocks of homes were demolished, reduced to piles of splintered lumber or mere concrete slabs, in Mexico Beach, Fla., by Hurricane Michael.