‘Apoc­a­lyp­tic:’ 1 Fla. town de­mol­ished by Michael

Yuma Sun - - HOME SERVICES -

MEX­ICO BEACH, Fla. — The small Gulf Coast com­mu­nity of Mex­ico Beach was known as a slice of Old Florida. Now it lies in splin­ters. Hit head-on by Hur­ri­cane Michael, nu­mer­ous homes in this re­sort town of about 1,190 peo­ple were shat­tered or ripped from their foun­da­tions. Boats were tossed like toys. The streets clos­est to the wa­ter looked as if a bomb had gone off.

What the 9-foot storm surge didn’t de­stroy, the 155 mph (250 kph) winds fin­ished off.

Now, res­cuers and res­i­dents are strug­gling to get into the ground-zero town to as­sess the dam­age and search for the hun­dreds of peo­ple be­lieved to have stayed be­hind.

Mishelle McPher­son and her ex-hus­band looked for the el­derly mother of a friend on Thurs­day. The woman lived in a small cin­derblock house about 150 yards from the Gulf and thought she would be OK.

Her home was re­duced to crum­bled blocks and pieces of floor tile.

“Aggy! Aggy!” McPher­son yelled. The only sound that came back was the echo from the half-de­mol­ished build­ing and the pound­ing of the surf.

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

As she walked down the street, McPher­son pointed out pieces of what had been the woman’s house: “That’s the blade from her ceil­ing fan. That’s her floor tile.”

Drone footage of Mex­ico Beach showed a stun­ning land­scape of dev­as­ta­tion. Few struc­tures were un­scathed.

John Humphress, a storm chaser and drone pilot, ar­rived around 5 p.m. Wed­nes­day, a few hours af­ter Michael slammed into the coast­line. He had one word to de­scribe what he saw: “apoc­a­lyp­tic.”

State of­fi­cials said 285 peo­ple in Mex­ico Beach had re­fused to leave ahead of the hur­ri­cane de­spite a manda­tory evac­u­a­tion or­der.

A Na­tional Guard team went into the area and found 20 sur­vivors overnight, and more crews were push­ing into the stricken zone on Thurs­day. The fate of many other res­i­dents was un­known, au­thor­i­ties said.

Humphress, who spent the night in his truck on a bridge near Mex­ico Beach, said he didn’t see any­one dead.

On Thurs­day, res­i­dents who evac­u­ated tried to re­turn.

The Rev. Ed­die LaFoun­tain, pas­tor at First Bap­tist Church in Mex­ico Beach, was one of them. He de­scribed the place as a “good fam­ily re­sort town” that at­tracts vis­i­tors seek­ing peace and quiet rather than the spring break-like at­mos­phere of other com­mu­ni­ties along the 200-mile Florida Pan­han­dle.

More than a third of the pop­u­la­tion of Mex­ico Beach is 65 or older, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­sus, and nearly half of the hous­ing is for sea­sonal or recre­ational use.

Most of the full-time res­i­dents, LaFoun­tain said, have some con­nec­tion to the hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try. Some op­er­ate va­ca­tion home rentals, while oth­ers work jobs clean­ing and main­tain­ing the homes. Oth­ers own or work in res­tau­rants, rent out kayaks or run char­ter fish­ing boats. LaFoun­tain him­self has a lawn-mow­ing busi­ness.

De­spite the wide­spread de­struc­tion, LaFoun­tain said he be­lieves most peo­ple will re­build.

“I think the peo­ple here have a great heart and a lot of re­silience. We call them stub­born and hard-headed. I think they will be back,” LaFoun­tain said in a phone in­ter­view while driv­ing back to Mex­ico Beach.

A Florida hur­ri­cane ex­pert said the footage of build­ings in Mex­ico Beach stripped to their con­crete foun­da­tions was no sur­prise.

“This is what we ex­pect with storm surge and high wind events,” said Craig Fu­gate, former di­rec­tor of the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency and a former emer­gency man­age­ment chief for the state of Florida.

Florida has some of the most strin­gent hur­ri­cane build­ing codes in the coun­try, but they ap­ply only to new or retro­fit­ted struc­tures.

Mex­ico Beach is on the west end of what is some­times called Florida’s For­got­ten Coast, so named be­cause it is not heav­ily de­vel­oped like many of the state’s other shore­line ar­eas, with their lav­ish homes and high-rise con­dos and ho­tels.

U.S. Route 98 runs right along the coast, where a few beach­side res­tau­rants of­fer oys­ters and other seafood, cock­tails and a view of the Gulf of Mex­ico.

Other com­mu­ni­ties along the For­got­ten Coast in­clude Port St. Joe, Apalachicola, East­point, St. Marks and St. Ge­orge Is­land, all places where folks from nearby Tal­la­has­see, Ge­or­gia and Alabama like to es­cape for quiet week­ends.

As Repub­li­can Sen. Marco Ru­bio tweeted: “Mex­ico Beach is an old #Florida town. It’s charm is that it feels like a trip back in time to a place un­spoiled by de­vel­op­ment. I was told this morn­ing that it is ‘gone.’”


RES­CUE PER­SON­NEL PER­FORM A SEARCH in the af­ter­math of Hur­ri­cane Michael in Mex­ico Beach, Fla., on Thurs­day.

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