Face-to-face with Michael’s fury

‘It was life or death’ for res­i­dents of small Florida town who chose not to evac­u­ate ahead of storm

Santa Fe New Mexican - - NATION&WORLD - By Russ Bynum Associated Press

TMEXICO BEACH, Fla. om 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.

Search-and-res­cue teams found at least one body in Mex­ico Beach, the ground-zero town nearly oblit­er­ated by Hur­ri­cane Michael, an of­fi­cial said Fri­day as the scale of the storm’s fury be­came ever clearer. The death toll across the South stood at 13, not count­ing any vic­tims in Mex­ico Beach.

Sur­vivors 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.

“It’s a wipe­out,” he said, adding that he plans to sell his prop­erty rather than re­build. On the Pan­han­dle, Tyn­dall Air Force Base “took a beat­ing,” so much so that Col. Brian Laid­law told the 3,600 men and women sta­tioned on the base not to come back. Many of the 600 fam­i­lies who live there had fol­lowed or­ders to pack what they could in a sin­gle suit­case as they were evac­u­ated ahead of the storm.

The hur­ri­cane’s eye­wall passed di­rectly over­head, se­verely dam­ag­ing nearly ev­ery build­ing and leav­ing many a com­plete loss. The el­e­men­tary school, the flight line, the ma­rina and the run­ways were dev­as­tated.

While Gar­cia and his wife sur­vived the hur­ri­cane’, he was out Fri­day search­ing for his daugh­ter and mother. Kris­ten Gar­cia, 32, and her 90-year-old grand­mother, Jad­wiga Gar­cia, were stay­ing in a sec­ond-floor beach­front apart­ment Wed­nes­day as the storm came ashore.

Tom Gar­cia said his daugh­ter called him to say the apart­ment was flood­ing and they had taken shel­ter in the bath­room. He hadn’t seen them in the two days since the storm passed, and hadn’t been able to gain ac­cess to their apart­ment.

He had tears in his eyes re­call­ing their last con­ver­sa­tion.

“She said, ‘Dad, get down here,’ ” Gar­cia said. “I said, ‘It’s too late.’ ”

DAVID GOLD­MAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Hec­tor Morales sits Fri­day on a de­bris pile near his home that was de­stroyed Wed­nes­day by Hur­ri­cane Michael in Mex­ico Beach, Fla. ‘I lost ev­ery­thing,’ Morales said.

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