‘IT LOOKS LIKE A BOMB WENT OFF’
Storm delivers Florida historic wallop before raging up coastal states
Death toll likely to rise; many will languish without power for weeks
PANAMA CITY, Fla. – The most powerful hurricane on record to hit Florida’s Panhandle left destruction and death in its path Thursday as it weakened to tropical storm status but still brought havoc to Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia.
Hurricane Michael made landfall Wednesday about 20 miles southeast of here with historic, 155-mph sustained winds, violent waves and sideways rain. Seven people were reported killed from the storm: five in Florida, one in Georgia and one in North Carolina. Authorities expected the number to rise.
Thursday, the extent of damage to this picturesque seaside town was revealed. The sugar-sand beaches were littered with debris when the storm’s rage – and the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico – finally receded. Two hospitals were evacuated. Swaths of homes were destroyed, power lines snapped like toothpicks, cars and trucks flipped and smashed.
It will probably be weeks before roads are cleared and electricity is fully restored.
“It got tore up. It looks like a bomb went off,” Chris Allen, 48, said as he surveyed the damage downtown.
In Panama City, the Forest Park neighborhood’s namesake pine trees turned into sledgehammers during the storm, crushing cars, roofs and outbuildings.
“This was the scariest experience I’ve ever had in my entire life,” Panama City resident Peter Muller said. “The scope of the damage is absolutely mind-boggling. It’s like a war zone or something out of a horror movie.”
Thousands of homes and businesses were blown apart as the storm slammed across the Florida Panhandle and roared with hurricane force into Georgia.
Entire neighborhoods were wiped out. An 80-mile stretch of debrisstrewn Interstate 10 west of Tallahassee was shut down.
Beaches disappeared, military bases were damaged, boats were slammed into houses and trees were mowed down like lawns. More than
600,000 customers in the two states lost power. Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina reported 170,000 more.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency warned that some areas could be without power for weeks.
“So many lives have been changed forever,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said. “So many families have lost everything. … This hurricane was an absolute monster.”
The region was in search-and-rescue mode as thousands of first responders and National Guard members fanned out to help. A helicopter crew pulled nine people from a bathroom of a home here after the roof collapsed, the Coast Guard said. The rescue was among dozens by the agency.
“One hundred percent of our focus is on rescue and recovery from this devastating storm,” Scott said.
In Panama City, the Bay Medical Center Sacred Heart had roof, structural and water damage. Michael left substantial broken glass, caused cooling and plumbing problems and knocked out information systems.
“Even with these challenges, we are committed to continuing to provide emergency medical care for those in need through the emergency room on our main campus,” hospital CEO Scott Campbell said.
By late afternoon Thursday, the National Hurricane Center said Michael was centered about 20 miles northnorthwest of Raleigh, North Carolina. Its strength had eased since its angry landfall, but Michael was still blasting sustained winds of 50 mph as it swept northeast at 24 mph.
Among the storm fatalities was an
11-year-old in Seminole County, Georgia, who was reported dead after a tree fell on a home during the storm.
Parts of North Carolina, still recovering from the relentless rains of Hurricane Florence in September, were hit with up to 9 inches of rain from Michael, the Weather Prediction Center said.
“For North Carolina, Michael isn’t as bad as Florence, but it adds unwelcome insult to injury,” Gov. Roy Cooper said.
In Panama City, the curfew was in effect Wednesday night and Thursday morning to prevent looting, but Jane Lindsey, 72, took no chances.
She and her husband spent the night in lawn chairs guarding their store, the Elegant Endeavors Antique Emporium on Harrison Avenue. The wind tore off the roof, poured water into all three floors and blew out the front windows.
“We’ve never seen this kind of devastation,” Lindsey said, her feet crunching the broken shards that were her plateglass windows.
Lindsay was so worried about her store that she and her husband abandoned their nearby home to the storm: “We don’t even know if we have a house left. We can’t leave here.”
Police officers spent the night patrolling the area and responding to calls for assistance, making do with damaged patrol cars. The air smelled like a sawmill, a legacy of the thousands of shredded trees.
Federal officials prepared tarps for thousands of roof-damaged homes across the region, and government survey ships checked coastlines for additional damage. Thousands of contractors are set to replace utility poles and string new electric lines, but the damage to businesses will take far longer to fix.
Panama City and Panama City Beach are heavily dependent on tourism. About 17 million visitors annually sun themselves on the 27 miles of beaches.
“Panama City Beach is so resilient, and the whole community will be working together to get things back up and running,” said Jayna Leach, a spokeswoman for Visit Panama City Beach.
Bacon reported from McLean, Va. Contributing: The Associated Press; Kevin Robinson, The Pensacola NewsJournal
Hurricane Michael smashed homes on Alligator Point in Franklin County, Fla. It was the strongest storm to hit the Panhandle.