'It was life or death': Face-to-face with Michael's fury

Porterville Recorder - - NEWS - By RUSS BYNUM

MEX­ICO BEACH, Fla. — Tom Gar­cia watched in ter­ror as fin­gers of wa­ter pushed in­land across the beach and be­gan fill­ing up his home.

His wife handed him a drill and Gar­cia used screws to pin his front and back door shut. But soon the storm surge from Hur­ri­cane Michael was up to his chest. His dogs sat on his bed as it floated. He said it took all of his strength to hold his slid­ing door shut as the wa­ters out­side the glass rose higher than those flood­ing the house.

"It was life or death," Gar­cia said through tears Fri­day as he walked amid the de­struc­tion in Mex­ico Beach.

Michael was one of the most pow­er­ful hur­ri­canes to ever make land­fall in the U.S., and this Gulf Coast com­mu­nity of about 1,000 peo­ple was in its bulls­eye Wed­nes­day. While most res­i­dents fled ahead of the storm's ar­rival, oth­ers stayed to face the hur­ri­cane.

They barely es­caped as homes were smashed from their foun­da­tions, neigh­bor­hoods got sub­merged, and bro­ken boards, sheet me­tal and other de­bris flew through the air.

Hec­tor Mo­rales, a 57-year-old restau­rant cook, never even thought about evac­u­at­ing. He grew up in Puerto Rico, where he said "you learn how to sur­vive a storm."

His mo­bile home isn't on the beach. But the canal lined with boat docks be­hind his home quickly over­flowed as the hur­ri­cane came in­land. Soon, Mo­rales said, his mo­bile home started float­ing.

"The wa­ter kept com­ing so fast, it started com­ing in from ev­ery­where," he said as he sat out­side on a bro­ken set of stairs ly­ing atop a mat­tress and other storm de­bris. "I had about 3 feet of wa­ter in my house. That's when I de­cided to jump."

He got through a win­dow of his home on to the top of his car out­side when Mo­rales saw two neigh­bors wad­ing through the rush­ing surge. He swam out and grabbed a util­ity pole, then reached out and helped steady the wad­ing cou­ple. They fought their way onto a fish­ing boat that had been tied to a palm tree and climbed in­side.

Mo­rales left his neigh­bors in a bath­room be­low the boat's deck, while he sat in the cap­tain's chair. He said they stayed in the boat for six hours be­fore the winds calmed and the surge receded.

"I lost ev­ery­thing — my clothes, wal­let, credit cards," he said. "But I made it."

Bill Shockey, 86, re­fused when his daugh­ter pleaded with him to leave Mex­ico Beach. He said he didn't want to leave be­hind his col­lec­tion of "Gone with the Wind" dishes and an­tique dolls. So he stashed those valu­ables up high in a closet be­fore head­ing to his daugh­ter's newly built two-story home next door.

With a pocket full of cigars and his cat named Andy, Shockey watched the hur­ri­cane roll in from an up­stairs be­d­room. The wind shred­ded the roof of his sin­gle-story home. Wa­ter rose nearly to the top of his garage door. A neigh­bor's home across the street got shoved off its foun­da­tion.

Was he scared? "Wor­ried, I think, is more like it," Shockey said.

His daugh­ter's home took in some flood­wa­ters down­stairs, but was oth­er­wise un­scathed. Shockey's own home of 24 years didn't fare so well, though his col­lectibles sur­vived.

AP PHOTO BY DAVID GOLD­MAN

Dam­aged homes are seen along the wa­ter’s edge in the af­ter­math of hur­ri­cane Michael in Mex­ico Beach, Fla., Fri­day, Oct. 12.

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