Miles in­land, trees top­pled like ‘domi­noes’

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Gray Rohrer

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.”

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