‘UNIMAG­IN­ABLE DE­STRUC­TION’

Flor­ida Pan­han­dle a land­scape of dev­as­ta­tion in storm’s wake; nearly 300 miss­ing

The Day - - FRONT PAGE - By JAY REEVES and BREN­DAN FAR­RING­TON

Panama City, Fla. — The dev­as­ta­tion in­flicted by Hur­ri­cane Michael came into fo­cus Thurs­day with rows upon rows of homes found smashed to pieces, and res­cue crews strug­gling to en­ter stricken ar­eas in hopes of ac­count­ing for hun­dreds of peo­ple who may have stayed be­hind.

At least three deaths were blamed on Michael, the most pow­er­ful hur­ri­cane to hit the con­ti­nen­tal U.S. in over 50 years, and it wasn’t done yet: Though re­duced to a trop­i­cal storm, it brought flash flood­ing to North Carolina and Vir­ginia, soak­ing ar­eas still re­cov­er­ing from Hur­ri­cane Florence.

Un­der a clear blue sky, fam­i­lies liv­ing along the Flor­ida Pan­han­dle emerged from shel­ters and ho­tels to a per­ilous land­scape of shat­tered homes and shop­ping cen­ters, wail­ing sirens and hov­er­ing he­li­copters.

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

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

The full ex­tent of Michael’s fury was only slowly be­com­ing clear, with some of the hard­est-hit ar­eas dif­fi­cult to reach with roads blocked by de­bris or wa­ter. An 80-mile stretch of In­ter­state 10, the main east-west route, was closed.

Video from a drone re­vealed some of the worst dam­age in Mex­ico Beach, where the hur­ri­cane crashed ashore Wed­nes­day as a Cat­e­gory 4 mon­ster with 155 mph winds and a storm surge of 9 feet.

En­tire blocks of homes near the beach were oblit­er­ated, leav­ing con­crete slabs in the sand. Rows and rows of other homes were ren­dered piles of splin­tered lum­ber. En­tire roofs were torn away in the town of about 1,000 peo­ple, now a scene of ut­ter dev­as­ta­tion.

State of­fi­cials said 285 peo­ple in Mex­ico Beach had de­fied a manda­tory evac­u­a­tion or­der ahead of Michael. More than 375,000 peo­ple up and down the Gulf Coast were or­dered or urged to clear out as Michael closed in. But emer­gency au­thor­i­ties lamented that many ig­nored the warn­ings.

Na­tional Guard troops made their way into the ground-zero town and found 20 sur­vivors Wed­nes­day night, and more res­cue crews ar­rived Thurs­day. But the fate of many res­i­dents was un­known.

Mishelle McPher­son and her ex-hus­band searched for the el­derly mother of a friend. The woman lived in a small cin­derblock house about 150 yards from the Gulf and thought she would be OK. The home was found smashed, with no sign of the woman.

“Do you think her body would be here? Do you think it would have floated away?” McPher­son asked.

Linda Mar­quardt, 67, rode out the storm with her hus­band at their home in Mex­ico Beach. When the house filled with storm surge wa­ter, they fled up­stairs. “All of my fur­ni­ture was float­ing,” she said. “A river just started com­ing down the road. It was aw­ful, and now there's just noth­ing left.”

As thou­sands of Na­tional Guard troops, law en­force­ment of­fi­cers and med­i­cal teams spread out, the gov­er­nor pleaded with peo­ple in the dev­as­tated ar­eas to stay away be­cause of haz­ards such as fallen trees and power lines.

“I know you just want to go home. You want to check on things and be­gin the re­cov­ery process,” Scott said. But “we have to make sure things are safe.”

More than 900,000 homes and busi­nesses in Flor­ida, Alabama, Ge­or­gia and the Caroli­nas were with­out power.

The Coast Guard said it res­cued at least 27 peo­ple be­fore and af­ter the hur­ri­cane's land­fall, mostly from coastal homes. Nine peo­ple had to be res­cued by he­li­copter from a bath­room of a home in hard­hit Panama City af­ter their roof col­lapsed, Petty Of­fi­cer 3rd Class Ron­ald Hodges said.

In Panama City, most homes were still stand­ing, but no prop­erty was left un­dam­aged. Downed power lines and twisted street signs lay all around. Roofs had been peeled off. Alu­minum sid­ing was shred­ded and homes were split by fallen trees. Hun­dreds of cars had bro­ken win­dows. Pine trees were stripped and snapped off about 20 feet high.

In neigh­bor­ing Panama City Beach, Bay County Sher­iff Tommy Ford re­ported widespread loot­ing of homes and busi­nesses. He im­posed a cur­few and asked for 50 mem­bers of the Na­tional Guard for pro­tec­tion.

The hur­ri­cane also dam­aged hos­pi­tals and nurs­ing homes in the Panama City area, and of­fi­cials worked to evac­u­ate hun­dreds of pa­tients. The dam­age at Bay Med­i­cal Sa­cred Heart in­cluded blown-out win­dows and a cracked ex­te­rior wall, but no pa­tients were hurt.

The state men­tal hos­pi­tal in Chat­ta­hoochee, which has a sec­tion for the crim­i­nally in­sane, was cut off by land, and food and sup­plies were be­ing flown in, au­thor­i­ties said. All phone con­tact was cut off to the com­plex of nearly 1,000 res­i­dents and more than 300 staff, leav­ing them only with emer­gency ra­dios to reach the out­side world.

A man out­side Tal­la­has­see, Fla., was killed by a fall­ing tree, and an 11-year-old girl in Ge­or­gia died when the winds picked up a car­port and dropped it on her home. One of the car­port's legs punc­tured the roof and hit her in the head. A driver in North Carolina was killed when a tree fell on his car.

AP PHO­TOS

Above, Mishelle McPher­son looks for a friend who stayed be­hind in the rub­ble of her home in Mex­ico Beach, Fla. Top left, a man walks through a dam­aged store in Spring­field, Fla. Top right, emer­gency work­ers with the South Flor­ida Search and Res­cue Task Force 2 sur­vey dam­age at the western edge of town in Mex­ico Beach.

GER­ALD HER­BERT/AP PHOTO

Res­cue per­son­nel search amid de­bris in the af­ter­math of Hur­ri­cane Michael in Mex­ico Beach, Fla., on Thurs­day.

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