Dam­age ‘unimag­in­able’ in Florida Pan­han­dle

Whole blocks of homes swept away or splin­tered

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - FROM WIRE RE­PORTS

MEX­ICO BEACH, Fla. — The scope of the dev­as­ta­tion brought by Hur­ri­cane Michael came into sober­ing fo­cus Thurs­day as res­cue work­ers searched a ru­ined land­scape of splin­tered homes, top­pled trees and up­ended ve­hi­cles that stretched across much of the Florida Pan­han­dle.

The sea­side com­mu­nity of Mex­ico Beach, where the storm made land­fall, was a flat­tened wreck af­ter Michael’s 155 mph im­pact — just 1 mph short of a Cat­e­gory 5 storm — and a storm surge of 9 feet. En­tire blocks of homes near the beach were oblit­er­ated, re­duced to con­crete slabs in the sand. Rows and rows of other homes were turned into piles of splin­tered lum­ber. Fish­ing boats were piled crazily on shore.

“These were all block and stucco houses — gone,” said Tom Bai­ley, a former mayor. “The mother of all bombs doesn’t do any more dam­age than this.”

And while Mex­ico Beach was hit hard­est, much of the Florida Pan­han­dle was a land­scape of col­lapsed build­ings and com­pro­mised roads and wa­ter sys­tems. Res­cue teams evac­u­ated hos­pi­tals, searched rub­ble for sur­vivors and dropped emer­gency sup­plies from he­li­copters.

The storm’s fury spread across six states, and more than 1 mil­lion homes and busi­nesses were with­out elec­tric­ity Thurs­day as Michael made its way seaward as a trop­i­cal storm. At least six peo­ple were con­firmed dead, and the toll was ex­pected to rise.

Lo­cal gov­ern­ments im­posed dusk­to­dawn cur­fews and told res­i­dents to boil their wa­ter. The Amer­i­can Red Cross said about 7,800 peo­ple

slept in shel­ters Wed­nes­day night.

Gov. Rick Scott said the Pan­han­dle woke up to “unimag­in­able de­struc­tion.”

“So many lives have been changed for­ever,” he said. “So many fam­i­lies have lost every­thing.”

Stud­ies in con­trast

To go from town to town Thurs­day, and even block to block, was to see how Michael could be as capri­cious as it was de­struc­tive. In St. James, Fla., newer homes stood in­tact next to older ones that had been shat­tered into piles of soggy wood. Even some of the homes that were stand­ing — barely — had their in­sides spilled onto the sand: re­frig­er­a­tors, seat cush­ions, life vests.

Panama City Beach, a re­sort pop­u­lar with re­tirees and spring­break­ers, also was nearly wiped away by the wind and walls of wa­ter, with guardrails and roofs twisted into rib­bons. The storm top­pled 30­ton train cars.

Michael also pum­meled Tyn­dall Air Force base, set di­rectly on the shore­line be­tween Panama City and Mex­ico Beach, caus­ing “wide­spread roof dam­age to nearly ev­ery home and leav­ing the base closed un­til fur­ther no­tice,” of­fi­cials said in a state­ment.

The base’s 600 fam­i­lies had been evac­u­ated Mon­day, and many were taken to shel­ters to ride out the storm. No in­juries had been re­ported there as of late Thurs­day.

One of four dead in Gads­den County was a man from Greens­boro who had a heart at­tack Thurs­day morn­ing. Res­ cuers, faced with a mess of de­bris, could not im­me­di­ately reach him, but neigh­bors and oth­ers rushed in with chain saws and trac­tors, pulling away tree limbs to clear a path.

Reach­ing Greens­boro at all was dif­fi­cult be­cause In­ter­state 10 was closed in sev­eral lo­ca­tions, blocked by de­bris. Travel across the Pan­han­dle was ar­du­ous ev­ery­where.

The storm’s ef­fects reached deep into the Pan­han­dle. In the town of Mar­i­anna, more than 60 miles north­east of Panama City, roofs were torn off build­ings, pine trees snapped and bricks and de­bris strewn across down­town streets.

“All the power lines are down, and there are trees ev­ery­where,” said Leroy Wil­son Jr., who was driv­ing from his home out­side Mar­i­anna to Dothan, Ala. “This is the worst storm we’ve ever had in this area. It was very, very bad.”

‘Our worst dreams’

Florida suf­fered the great­est de­struc­tion, but there was also wide­spread dam­age in Ge­or­gia, parts of which Michael struck af­ter it weak­ened to a Cat­e­gory 3 hur­ri­cane, with winds of at least 111 mph.

Al­though Ge­or­gia’s south­west is sparsely pop­u­lated, state of­fi­cials re­ported at least one fa­tal­ity, an 11­year­old girl whose home was hit by a fly­ing car­port, and said the storm had dev­as­tated the farm­land that pow­ers ru­ral Ge­or­gia’s econ­omy.

“Our worst dreams are be­ing re­al­ized,” said Gary Black, the state agri­cul­ture com­mis­sioner.

In North Car­olina’s Ire­dell County, north of Char­lotte, a 38­year­old man was killed Thurs­day when a tree fell on the ve­hi­cle he was driv­ing, ac­cord­ing to David Souther, the county’s fire mar­shal.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, speak­ing at the White House about the widen­ing dev­as­ta­tion across the South, said the na­tion had not “seen de­struc­tion like that in a long time.”

By Thurs­day af­ter­noon, Michael had slugged its way through South Car­olina as a trop­i­cal storm and was mak­ing its way across North Car­olina, with its heaviest rains in the cen­tral and western parts of the states. Lo­cal of­fi­cials had res­cued peo­ple from flood­wa­ters by evening.

The storm’s track took it mostly away from the east­ern parts of the Caroli­nas, which had been dev­as­tated just a month ago by Hur­ri­cane Florence. Ma­jor river flood­ing was not ex­pected, though the winds were high.

Me­te­o­rol­o­gists had seen Michael com­ing and had been warn­ing for sev­eral days that it was a se­ri­ous storm. But what they did not an­tic­i­pate, many said, was Michael’s fu­ri­ous in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion in the hours be­fore it made land­fall, and how far in­land it man­aged to main­tain that fe­roc­ity.

“This one we weren’t ex­pect­ing,” said Steve Bowen, direc­tor and me­te­o­rol­o­gist at the risk con­sul­tancy Aon, who works with in­surance agen­cies to an­a­lyze nat­u­ral dis­as­ter risk. He said Michael broke many rules be­cause it “main­tained hur­ri­cane in­ten­sity nearly 200 miles in­land.”

Bowen said Michael was likely to lead to a re­think­ing of build­ing codes. “The homes aren’t re­ally built to with­stand these sorts of winds in the Florida Pan­han­dle,” he said.

In Florida, the road to Mex­ico Beach be­came pass­able Thurs­day morn­ing, less than 24 hours af­ter Michael made land­fall, and it be­came ev­i­dent that few com­mu­ni­ties had suf­fered more.

Known for its sport fish­ing, the city of about 2,000 per­ma­nent res­i­dents swells to as many as 14,000 in July, and is known for hav­ing a re­laxed, small­town feel com­pared with the brash tourist strips of Panama City Beach and the tony nearby beach de­vel­op­ments of Alys Beach or Sea­side.

But this week, af­ter winds that reached 155 mph, much of the town was in ru­ins. There were few lo­cals to be found, and fewer tourists.

Bai­ley, the former mayor, and his wife had rid­den out the storm un­der­neath his home in a bunker of sorts that he built. The home it­self was left largely roof­less and un­in­hab­it­able.

“It’s just ab­so­lutely stupid and ridicu­lous what I’m see­ing,” he said. “Houses that have been here for­ever are gone.”

Of­fi­cials were not al­low­ing visi­tors to drive into town be­cause the roads were barely pass­able, but con­voys of mil­i­tary trucks and Humvees were mov­ing in, while hard­hat­ted search­and­res­cue crews went door to door — al­though of­ten there were no doors — to search for sur­vivors.

An X and a zero

In the late morn­ing, two men from the New Orleans Fire Depart­ment could be seen search­ing the sec­ond story of a raised home, the face of which had been sheared off by the wind.

They even­tu­ally de­scended and spray­painted an “X,” a sym­bol well­known to New Or­lea­ni­ans af­ter the hor­ror of Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, to show the house had been searched. Then they added a big zero: no bod­ies found.

The few lo­cals stick­ing around said they knew that this was the first phase of a re­cov­ery that would take years.

Nate Odum, 53, an owner of the badly dam­aged lo­cal ma­rina, said some peo­ple might have been spooked enough to leave for good. But he was con­fi­dent that Mex­ico Beach would come back.

“We’re the front porch to some of the best fish­ing in the Gulf,” he said. “You’ve just got to take it day by day.”

Bren­dan Smi­alowski/ Agence France­presse

A man worked in what was left of a Panama City apart­ment build­ing Thurs­day, a day af­ter Hur­ri­cane Michael blasted the Florida Pan­han­dle with winds that left the storm just 1 mph short of Cat­e­gory 5 sta­tus.

Ger­ald Herbert/ The As­so­ci­ated Press

A boat sits amid de­bris in Mex­ico Beach, Fla., ground zero for one of the four strong­est storms ever to strike the United States. In some Pan­han­dle com­mu­ni­ties on Thurs­day, newer homes stood in­tact next to older ones that had been shat­tered into piles of soggy wood. Hur­ri­cane Michael also top­pled 30­ton train cars.

Joe Rae­dle/getty Im­ages

El­iz­a­beth Han­son and her daugh­ter be­came emo­tional as they sur­veyed the dam­age done to their home in Mex­ico Beach. Over a mil­lion homes and busi­nesses were with­out elec­tric­ity Thurs­day. The Red Cross said 7,800 peo­ple slept in shel­ters Wed­nes­day night.

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