Af­ter Michael’s ram­page on Fla. Pan­han­dle: ‘Noth­ing Left’

Yuma Sun - - OPINION -

PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Linda Mar­quardt rode out Hur­ri­cane Michael with her hus­band at their home in Mex­ico Beach. When their house filled with surg­ing ocean wa­ter, they fled up­stairs. Now their home is full of mud and ev­ery­where they look there’s ut­ter dev­as­ta­tion in their Florida Pan­han­dle com­mu­nity: fish­ing boats tossed like toys, roofs lifted off of build­ings and pine trees snapped like match­sticks in 155 mph winds.

Row af­ter row of beach­front homes were so oblit­er­ated by Michael’s surg­ing seas and howl­ing winds that only slabs of con­crete in the sand re­main, a tes­ta­ment that this was ground zero when the epic Cat­e­gory 4 hur­ri­cane slammed ashore at mid­week. The de­struc­tion in this and other com­mu­ni­ties dot­ting the white­sand beaches is be­ing called cat­a­strophic — and it will need bil­lions of dol­lars to re­build.

“All of my fur­ni­ture was float­ing,” said Mar­quardt, 67. “‘A river just started com­ing down the road. It was aw­ful, and now there’s just noth­ing left.”

At least three deaths were blamed on Michael, the most pow­er­ful hur­ri­cane to hit the con­ti­nen­tal U.S. in over 50 years, and by early Fri­day it wasn’t over yet: a trop­i­cal storm long af­ter Wed­nes­day’s land­fall, Michael stub­bornly kept up its punch while bar­rel­ing up the South­east, dump­ing heavy rains and spread­ing flash flood­ing mis­ery as far away as Vir­ginia.

High winds, downed trees, streets in­un­dated by ris­ing wa­ters and mul­ti­ple res­cues of mo­torists from wa­ter­logged cars played out in spots around Vir­ginia and neigh­bor­ing North Carolina. And while fore­cast­ers said Michael was grad­u­ally los­ing its trop­i­cal traits, it was a new chap­ter would be­gin as an ex­tra­t­rop­i­cal storm pre­dicted to in­ten­sify with gale force winds once it starts cross out into the At­lantic.

In North Carolina’s moun­tains, mo­torists had to be res­cued Thurs­day from cars trapped by high wa­ter. High winds top­pled trees and power lines, leav­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands with­out power. Flash flood­ing also was re­ported in the big North Carolina cities of Char­lotte and Raleigh. Sim­i­lar scenes played out in parts of Vir­ginia as the storm raced sea­ward.

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

Mean­while, thou­sands of Na­tional Guard troops, law en­force­ment of­fi­cers and res­cue teams still had much to do in the hard­est hit area: Florida’s Pan­han­dle. Fam­i­lies liv­ing along the Pan­han­dle are now faced with a strug­gle to sur­vive in a per­ilous land­scape of shat­tered homes and shop­ping cen­ters, the storm de­bris spread far and wide.

In one com­mu­nity, Panama City, most homes were still stand­ing, but no prop­erty was left un­dam­aged. Downed power lines and twisted street signs lay all around. Alu­minum sid­ing was shred­ded and homes were split by fallen trees. Hun­dreds of cars had bro­ken win­dows. The hur­ri­cane dam­aged hos­pi­tals and nurs­ing homes in Panama City, and of­fi­cials worked to evac­u­ate hun­dreds of pa­tients.

“So many lives have been changed for­ever. So many fam­i­lies have lost ev­ery­thing,” said Florida Gov. Rick Scott, call­ing it “unimag­in­able de­struc­tion.”

An in­sur­ance com­pany that pro­duces mod­els for catas­tro­phes es­ti­mated Michael caused about $8 bil­lion in dam­age. Bos­ton­based Karen Clark & Com­pany re­leased that es­ti­mate Thurs­day, which in­cludes pri­vately in­sured wind and storm surge dam­age to res­i­den­tial, com­mer­cial and in­dus­trial prop­er­ties and ve­hi­cles. It doesn’t in­clude losses cov­ered by the Na­tional Flood In­sur­ance Pro­gram.

And Michael also was deadly, both in Florida and beyond.

A man out­side Tal­la­has­see, Florida, was killed by a fall­ing tree, and an 11-year-old girl in Ge­or­gia died when Michael’s winds picked up a car­port and dropped it on her home, de­bris strik­ing her in the head. A driver in North Carolina also was killed when a tree fell on his car.

Some fear the toll can only rise as res­cue teams get around storm de­bris block­ing roads and reach iso­lated ar­eas.

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.

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 hard-hit Panama City af­ter their roof col­lapsed, Petty Of­fi­cer 3rd Class Ronald Hodges said.

In hard-hit Mex­ico Beach alone, state of­fi­cials say, 285 peo­ple in Mex­ico Beach de­fied a manda­tory evac­u­a­tion or­der ahead of Michael. The task ahead: find­ing and hope­fully safely ac­count­ing for all those who stayed be­hind.

Na­tional Guard troops made their way into the ground-zero town and found 20 sur­vivors ini­tially Wed­nes­day night, and more res­cue crews are ar­riv­ing. 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.

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