Miles inland, trees toppled like ‘dominoes’
BRISTOL — Rex Kent stood outside a Sunoco gas station that was still open Thursday, even though it had no power.
The store was crowded with a dozen people lined up by darkened rows of chips and soda.
Kent, 58, was worried because he was unable to get in touch with his mother, who had evacuated to a
nearby house. Cellphone service was out.
Hurricane Michael brought catastrophe to more than the coastal areas of the Florida Panhandle. The 155-mph storm also ravaged communities far inland, uprooting trees, knocking over power lines and tearing off roofs of houses.
Places such as Bristol, nearly 60 miles northeast of where Michael made landfall.
“Every time there was a big gust, a tree would fall down. It was a scary feeling,” said Kent, whose town has just 976 people. “We’ve never had a hurricane like this. We [were] blessed.”
Emergency officials blocked roads going into Panama City and the coastal areas to the south so search and rescue teams, debris removal crews and utility workers can get into the area and jump-start the recovery.
But that meant residents who stayed in shelters to the north couldn’t return to their homes to assess the damage.
The damage here and in other nearby towns wasn’t as extensive, but the storm still maimed buildings and roads.
Kent said he’s girding for a long way back to normalcy, with power out for weeks. “We’re stocked up enough to get us two or three days.”
In Blountstown, about 50 miles northeast of Panama City, punishing winds knocked down trees, downed power lines for large stretches of road and tore roofs off of buildings.
A traffic light in the center of town hung halfway down in the middle of an intersection. Mobile homes near the town were battered but still standing.
“It was frightening, it was uncertain,” said the Rev. Richard Schamber of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in a community of 2,500 souls. “It sounded like a kind of deep rumbles of wind kind of like it was slicing through wires at times.”
Trees fell throughout the two hours that brought the worst of Michael to town, Schamber said. One bashed a corner of his residence near the church, falling into the house.
“Every tree is down on the property,” Schamber said. “It’s like ... dominoes. All the trees are just knocked on down in the same direction for the most part, except for a big oak tree that I had out front, and it just split in half.”
Schamber grew up in nearby Wakulla County, which also saw damage from Michael. He said it was the worst storm he’s experienced. The devastation means the recovery will be measured in weeks and months, not days.
And then there are the psychological scars to a rural area already grappling with poverty before Michael hit.
“We need a reason … that allows us to carry on and know that we are not alone,” he said. “Not just recovery, but how do we live from this [in the] long term? I’m taking it one moment at a time.”