‘Mon­ster’ nearly oblit­er­ates a tiny Florida beach town


mex­ico beach, fla. — The Na­tional Guard unit raced to clear rub­ble and power lines as it made its way along U.S. High­way 98. The goal: Blaze a path to this iso­lated beach town on Florida’s Gulf Coast, the place that bore the most dev­as­tat­ing im­pact of Hur­ri­cane Michael’s land­fall, so res­cues could be­gin Fri­day.

Mem­bers of the Army guard unit from nearby Boni­fay, Fla., knew all about Mex­ico Beach — pop­u­la­tion 1,072 — where in the past they had gone swim­ming in the surf and waved hello to friends at the Dol­lar Gen­eral. But once they emerged onto the spot where the town had been, the dev­as­ta­tion was nearly un­fath­omable.

The pub­lic pier had washed away. En­tire blocks of houses were wiped clear off their foun­da­tions. The town’s land­mark El Gov­er­nor Mo­tel was gut­ted, its heated pool and Tiki Bar a pile of de­tri­tus, col­or­ful beach um­brel­las shred­ded and up­ended. The pop­u­lar RV park looked like a junk­yard. Beach houses were pulled off their pil­ings. Tou­can’s, a fa­vorite seafood restau­rant, lay in ruin.

“It was just gut-wrench­ing,”

said Staff Sgt. Andrew Plis­cofsky. It was his fourth hur­ri­cane res­cue op­er­a­tion, but he had never seen any­thing like it. “It was like a mon­ster came through and kicked it all down. This all just shocked us.”

Michael hit the beach here Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon as a Cat­e­gory 4 hur­ri­cane with 155 mph winds, slam­ming into the coast­line and tear­ing through sev­eral in­land com­mu­ni­ties. Though peo­ple knew the storm was com­ing, many thought it would not be as fe­ro­cious as it be­came.

As the Na­tional Guard ar­rived, Thomas Jett was out sur­vey­ing the town af­ter he weath­ered the storm there with this dog. He had waited too long to evac­u­ate and then had to turn back when his van was nearly blown off the road.

“There’s not a word in the dic­tio­nary to ex­plain how bad it was,” Jett said. “It’s like the end of the world. . . . It’s amaz­ing any­body’s still alive, still stand­ing. . . . In the blink of an eye it’s all gone. It’s hor­ri­ble.”

Al­though Michael weak­ened as it moved north, down­graded to a trop­i­cal storm Thurs­day morn­ing, it con­tin­ued its as­sault into early Fri­day as it chugged through Ge­or­gia, North Carolina and Vir­ginia. It left at least 15 dead in its wake, vic­tims of felled trees, air­borne de­bris and flash flood­ing.

The death toll will prob­a­bly go higher; emer­gency crews are still strug­gling to reach some of the hard­est-hit ar­eas on the Florida Pan­han­dle, where homes were top­pled and their con­tents strewn, of­fi­cials said.

“Un­for­tu­nately, I think you’re go­ing to see it climb,” Wil­liam “Brock” Long, the ad­min­is­tra­tor of the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency, said of the death toll at a brief­ing Fri­day. “I hope we don’t see it climb dra­mat­i­cally. But I have rea­sons to believe — we haven’t got­ten into some of the hard­est hit ar­eas, par­tic­u­larly the Mex­ico Beach area.” Only one fa­tal­ity had been dis­cov­ered in the town as of Fri­day evening, but much of the com­mu­nity was flat­tened.

The storm headed out into the At­lantic on Fri­day, but many could feel the im­pact for days, as more than 1 mil­lion peo­ple from Florida to Vir­ginia were left with­out power.

Along with res­i­den­tial coastal ar­eas, of­fi­cials said Hur­ri­cane Michael also caused sig­nif­i­cant dam­age at Tyn­dall Air Force Base, which is ad­ja­cent to Mex­ico Beach on the gulf. The “base took a beat­ing,” Col. Brian S. Laid­law, the in­stal­la­tion’s com­man­der and com­man­der of the 325th Fighter Wing, wrote in a let­ter to the peo­ple who call it home, say­ing that the base re­quires “ex­ten­sive cleanup and re­pairs.”

On Fri­day, un­der a clear sky, Brenna McAl­lis­ter, a for­mer com­bat medic in Afghanistan, worked with other vol­un­teer vet­er­ans to clear de­bris from more than 12 miles of road out­side of Panama City. They used chain saws to buzz through fallen trees and hauled away mas­sive de­bris, in­clud­ing wa­ter­logged mat­tresses and wash­ing-ma­chine parts to cre­ate a path to homes that were ef­fec­tively cut off from the world.

“All the emer­gency ser­vices — ev­ery­thing — the ra­dio tow­ers were down, the In­ter­net, the phones,” said McAl­lis­ter, who works as a mas­sage ther­a­pist and will prob­a­bly be out of a job be­cause so many of the ho­tels where she works were de­stroyed in Panama City. “We just got a con­voy of vet­er­ans trained in work­ing in war zones and went to work. It gives us a sense of pur­pose.”

While there was sig­nif­i­cant fo­cus on Florida’s oblit­er­ated beach­front com­mu­ni­ties, there also are res­cue op­er­a­tions un­der- way far in­land. Many peo­ple in the Pan­han­dle live on dirt roads blocked by fallen trees, with res­cue teams hav­ing to go in on foot. One res­i­dent of the town of Mar­i­anna, Chad Tay­lor, 66, a build­ing con­trac­tor, said that there’s not a chain saw for sale any­where be­tween Pen­sacola and Tal­la­has­see, across the en­tire breadth of North Florida.

In Mex­ico Beach on Fri­day, res­cue crews be­gan their painstak­ing house-to-house search, of­fer­ing stunned res­i­dents wa­ter and check­ing on their wel­fare. In re­turn, a pep­per­ing of ques­tions: When would the power be back? When would FEMA ar­rive?

“We’re look­ing for any­body who is trapped,” said cadet Matthew Pip­pins. They found no crises Fri­day morn­ing. What they did find were stunned and shocked peo­ple who were glad to see the first of­fi­cials in days.

Mex­ico Beach is a quiet va­ca­tion spot about 30 min­utes east of Panama City that at­tracts snow­birds and tourists who pull glis­ten­ing red snap­per out of its wa­ters. The town, which stretches for about five miles along U.S. Route 98, has man­aged to hold on to its charm by avoid­ing big-box stores and high-rise con­do­mini­ums, said Mayor Al Cathey, whose fam­ily has owned a hard­ware store in the area since 1974.

“We’re a proud lit­tle com­mu­nity,” he said. “There’s no cor­po­rate Amer­ica here. . . . We’re a unique lit­tle place, very close knit.”

Marcy El­der­man, 30, pulled out her gas grill and de­clared she was go­ing to cook for ev­ery­one in her neigh­bor­hood, many of whom spent the previous evening sleep­ing in cars out­side ru­ined homes.

“All of us feel like this is a com­mu­nity, and this is what’s left,” El­der­man said. “We just stick to­gether.”

Home se­cu­rity alarm bat­ter­ies emit­ted a con­stant chirp. The sharp smell of rot was be­gin­ning to set in. Nearly ev­ery home within sight of the wa­ter was griev­ously dam­aged, if not wiped off its foun­da­tion, flat­tened or roof­less, win­dow­less and door­less. Tan­gled messes of wood tim­bers, sod­den pink in­su­la­tion, elec­tri­cal wires and house­hold items were the only ev­i­dence of sea­side homes and busi­nesses.

Janet Kinch, who has had a home on the beach since 1989, re­turned for the first time Fri­day af­ter­noon and was stunned into si­lence when she saw what Hur­ri­cane Michael had wrought. The foun­da­tion stilts re­mained, but al­most noth­ing else — she found the peach and aqua tiles from her floors across the street, and she be­gan hunt­ing for the brand-new re­frig­er­a­tor.

“There’s my new screen door,” she said, look­ing be­hind the car­cass of a nearby home. This was the sec­ond time she was sift­ing through the remnants of a de­stroyed house; she and her hus­band re­built here af­ter Hur­ri­cane Opal swept their home away in 1995. “My hus­band just died two weeks ago. Oh, I can’t believe this. The house is gone for the sec­ond time.”

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), who has been vis­it­ing ar­eas pum­meled by the storm to as­sess needs, de­scribed Mex­ico Beach as be­ing like “a war zone.”

“There’s one house that was on the beach­side of that main road there, and it’s on the other side of the road now,” Scott said dur­ing a Fri­day brief­ing. “It was picked up by the storm surge and taken over.”

Dur­ing a tour of the wreck­age, Cathey asked Scott how other places fared.

“You guys got Scott replied.

Cathey spray-painted a board to read “City Hall” on Fri­day to serve as a makeshift com­mu­nity it the worst,” gath­er­ing place un­til a tem­po­rary build­ing can be erected. He pre­dicted that it would be months be­fore the town had elec­tric­ity, plumb­ing or wa­ter — its main wa­ter tower was blown over.

Cathey weath­ered the storm in his fam­ily’s home, and af­ter the winds sub­sided he stag­gered out­side to see his en­tire neigh­bor­hood de­stroyed.

“I guess this is what they call dev­as­ta­tion,” he said, amid the ru­ins of the fam­ily store. “When you live on the coast, there’s a price to be paid for that.” Sullivan re­ported from Mex­ico Beach, Wax-Thibodeaux and Gowen re­ported from Washington. Alice Li in Mex­ico Beach and Mark Ber­man, Joel Achen­bach and Julie Tate in Washington con­trib­uted to this re­port.


The af­ter­math of Hur­ri­cane Michael in Mex­ico Beach, Fla. To view be­fore and af­ter images of the storm, go to wash­ing­ton­post.com/graph­ics.

The in­te­rior of a home that was ru­ined by Hur­ri­cane Michael in Port St. Joe, Fla. Emer­gency crews are still strug­gling to reach some of the hard­est-hit ar­eas, where homes were top­pled and con­tents strewn.

Manuel Grif­fin out­side his home in High­land View, near Port St. Joe. In 56 years there he’s never seen as much mud af­ter a storm.

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