Michael’s af­ter­math in Florida: ‘We’re back to fron­tier days’

Woonsocket Call - - FRONT PAGE - By PA­TRI­CIA SUL­LI­VAN

DRY CREEK, Fla. — Up a red dirt road in the cen­ter of the Florida Pan­han­dle, past fields of ripen­ing cot­ton, the piney woods looks like pick-up sticks. Some trees are bent like pray­ing man­tises, and the few power poles still stand­ing lean at pre­car­i­ous an­gles, their wires do­ing loop-th­eloops around out­stretched limbs.

Un­til Satur­day, when neigh­bors broke through with chain saws and an ex­ca­va­tor, the Lip­ford home, sit­ting on 160 acres the fam­ily has owned since the Civil War, was cut off from civ­i­liza­tion. The only way into

the prop­erty was on an all-ter­rain ve­hi­cle cross­ing the wa­ter­logged pastures and over bridges built of wooden pallets.

“We’re back to fron­tier days,” said Jean Lip­ford, 50. Since Hur­ri­cane Michael struck this town on Wed­nes­day, she has been wash­ing clothes in a bucket and bathing in the creek where her hus­band made a dam with small stones. Her daugh­ter Whit­ney, 23, has been wield­ing a chain saw, re­turn­ing to the house ev­ery two hours to breast-feed her 6-week-old son.

“I want power and water. The rest of it we can deal with,” Lip­ford said.

Af­ter smash­ing Panama City and oblit­er­at­ing Mex­ico Beach, the eye of the storm swept north-north­east like a scythe, de­liv­er­ing mis­ery to one of the poor­est re­gions of Florida and neigh­bor­ing Alabama and Ge­or­gia. A large per­cent­age of peo­ple live in mo­bile homes and other vul­ner­a­ble struc­tures. The de­struc­tion ex­tends far in­land. Michael re­tained hur­ri­cane strength all the way through Ge­or­gia’s pe­can groves and cot­ton fields.

More than 250,000 cus­tomers across Florida were

still with­out power on Satur­day. Sixteen shel­ters housed 1,800 peo­ple.

Search-and-res­cue op­er­a­tions con­tinue, not only in Mex­ico Beach, which was bull­dozed by a storm surge that may have reached 14 feet, but also in the back­coun­try, where res­i­dents are fend­ing for them­selves and in some cases fear­ing they’ve been for­got­ten by the out­side world.

Deb­o­rah Bayer rode out Hur­ri­cane Michael clutch­ing her Bi­ble in the bath­room of her mo­bile home in Lynn Haven, a small city just north of Panama Beach. The sky dark­ened, the power went out, the wind howled and she felt the whole struc­ture shift on its foun­da­tion. A tree crashed onto the roof.

“It was a fun ride. I just sat there read­ing my Bi­ble, had some can­dles on. I just hun­ker down wait­ing for it to pass over,” re­called Bayer, 47, who lives in a trailer park.

She and other res­i­dents had been told by elected of­fi­cials to evac­u­ate in ad­vance of the hur­ri­cane. But how? To where? She’s a min­i­mum-wage worker at a call cen­ter. She couldn’t af­ford a ho­tel room.

In Bris­tol, a tiny town in Florida’s small­est county, Lib­erty, where the big­gest road has two lanes and half the land is in a na­tional for-

est, Emer­gency Man­age­ment Di­rec­tor Rhonda Lewis found her­self cut off from the rest of the world. No power, no land­lines or cell­phone con­nec­tions, no In­ter­net. A satel­lite phone wouldn’t work. It kept say­ing “search­ing ...search­ing ...search­ing,” Lewis said.

Not un­til Thurs­day night did she man­age to find a man with a ham ra­dio in next-door Cal­houn County and bring him back to Bris­tol, where she could send out calls for help.

“Re­build­ing is go­ing to be an is­sue. Be­cause they are so poor. Many of the homes, they had no in­sur­ance,” Lewis said.

Lines have formed at the Ace Hard­ware store where peo­ple have been pick­ing up emer­gency sup­plies. The Red Cross has ar­rived.

On Fri­day, Tif­fany Gar­ling, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Jack­son County Cham­ber of Com­merce – where Dry Creek is lo­cated – got a full night’s sleep for the first time since Sun­day, when she went to work in the county’s Emer­gency Op­er­a­tions Cen­ter. She doesn’t know how many peo­ple are still cut off in this largely ru­ral county, where peanuts and cot­ton are the main agri­cul­tural com­modi­ties.

“I have no idea. That’s the scary thing. There is no way to es­ti­mate,” she said.

The process of clear­ing roads is la­bo­ri­ous, with high­ways need­ing at­ten­tion be­fore the state roads, county roads or in­di­vid­ual streets – many of which are blocked with gi­ant oaks that re­quire heavy equip­ment to move, not just a chain saw.

Gar­ling be­lieves the county is 100 per­cent with­out power in res­i­den­tial ar­eas.

“Our prob­lems are dif­fer­ent than the city,” she said. With­out power, peo­ple can’t get water from their wells.

Hayes Baggett, the po­lice chief in nearby Marianna, said that in­land com­mu­ni­ties never get as much at­ten­tion as the white-sand-beach towns. But peo­ple are pulling to­gether, he said. There had been a few cur­few vi­o­la­tions and a lit­tle thiev­ery, but no wide­spread loot­ing.

Fam­i­lies in Lib­erty and Jack­son coun­ties have been ap­proved for in­di­vid­ual as­sis­tance from the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency, ac­cord­ing to the gover­nor’s of­fice, and food and water is be­ing air­dropped into the hard­est hit re­gions.

Sim­i­lar sto­ries played out in neigh­bor­ing Ge­or­gia, where Becky Ab­shire, a life­long res­i­dent of Al­bany, wor­ried about how she’s go­ing to raise her 10-year-old grand­son, Ash­ton, on the $750 she gets from her dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits.

Ab­shire, 60, evac­u­ated her three-room trailer, but re­turned to find that a tree had struck the bed­room she shares with Ash­ton.

“What I can’t af­ford to do, I hope my son will,” she said. But the son has a fam­ily of his own to sup­port.

Res­cue op­er­a­tions are un­der­way far in­land on dirt roads still blocked by downed trees. Teams that can’t reach ru­ral res­i­dents by ve­hi­cle are hav­ing to go on foot, said Sean Collins, 47, a re­tired fire­fighter in Marianna.

“We don’t know if some of the el­derly who live back in these woods, are they okay and have they been con­tacted,” he said.

Be­cause Marianna is so far from the coast – nearer to Alabama than to Panama City – res­i­dents did not evac­u­ate, he said.

“No­body thought it was go­ing to be this dev­as­tat­ing,” Collins said.

Wash­ing­ton Post photo by Jabin Bots­ford

Blocks sit where build­ings used to stand af­ter cat­e­gory 4 Hur­ri­cane Michael made land­fall along the Florida pan­han­dle Wed­nes­day in Mex­ico Beach, Fla.

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