Damage ‘unimaginable’ in Florida Panhandle
Whole blocks of homes swept away or splintered
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.”
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.
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.
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.