Searchers find body in hur­ri­cane-stricken town

San Antonio Express-News - - FRONT PAGE - By Pa­tri­cia Sul­li­van and Emily Wax-Thibodeaux

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.

Emily Kask / New York Times

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.

Ger­ald Her­bert / As­so­ci­ated Press

Blocks of homes were de­mol­ished, re­duced to piles of splin­tered lum­ber or mere con­crete slabs, in Mex­ico Beach, Fla., by Hur­ri­cane Michael.

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