‘IT LOOKS LIKE A BOMB WENT OFF’

Storm de­liv­ers Florida his­toric wal­lop be­fore rag­ing up coastal states

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Trevor Hughes and John Ba­con

Death toll likely to rise; many will lan­guish with­out power for weeks

PANAMA CITY, Fla. – The most pow­er­ful hur­ri­cane on record to hit Florida’s Pan­han­dle left de­struc­tion and death in its path Thurs­day as it weak­ened to trop­i­cal storm sta­tus but still brought havoc to Ge­or­gia, the Caroli­nas and Vir­ginia.

Hur­ri­cane Michael made land­fall Wed­nes­day about 20 miles south­east of here with his­toric, 155-mph sus­tained winds, vi­o­lent waves and side­ways rain. Seven peo­ple were re­ported killed from the storm: five in Florida, one in Ge­or­gia and one in North Car­olina. Au­thor­i­ties ex­pected the num­ber to rise.

Thurs­day, the ex­tent of dam­age to this pic­turesque sea­side town was re­vealed. The sugar-sand beaches were lit­tered with de­bris when the storm’s rage – and the turquoise wa­ters of the Gulf of Mex­ico – fi­nally re­ceded. Two hos­pi­tals were evac­u­ated. Swaths of homes were de­stroyed, power lines snapped like tooth­picks, cars and trucks flipped and smashed.

It will prob­a­bly be weeks be­fore roads are cleared and elec­tric­ity is fully re­stored.

“It got tore up. It looks like a bomb went off,” Chris Allen, 48, said as he sur­veyed the dam­age down­town.

In Panama City, the For­est Park neigh­bor­hood’s name­sake pine trees turned into sledge­ham­mers dur­ing the storm, crush­ing cars, roofs and out­build­ings.

“This was the scari­est ex­pe­ri­ence I’ve ever had in my en­tire life,” Panama City res­i­dent Pe­ter Muller said. “The scope of the dam­age is ab­so­lutely mind-bog­gling. It’s like a war zone or some­thing out of a hor­ror movie.”

Thou­sands of homes and busi­nesses were blown apart as the storm slammed across the Florida Pan­han­dle and roared with hur­ri­cane force into Ge­or­gia.

En­tire neigh­bor­hoods were wiped out. An 80-mile stretch of de­bris­strewn In­ter­state 10 west of Tal­la­has­see was shut down.

Beaches dis­ap­peared, mil­i­tary bases were dam­aged, boats were slammed into houses and trees were mowed down like lawns. More than

600,000 cus­tomers in the two states lost power. Alabama, South Car­olina and North Car­olina re­ported 170,000 more.

The Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency warned that some ar­eas could be with­out power for weeks.

“So many lives have been changed for­ever,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said. “So many fam­i­lies have lost every­thing. … This hur­ri­cane was an ab­so­lute mon­ster.”

The re­gion was in search-and-res­cue mode as thou­sands of first re­spon­ders and Na­tional Guard mem­bers fanned out to help. A he­li­copter crew pulled nine peo­ple from a bath­room of a home here af­ter the roof col­lapsed, the Coast Guard said. The res­cue was among dozens by the agency.

“One hun­dred per­cent of our fo­cus is on res­cue and re­cov­ery from this dev­as­tat­ing storm,” Scott said.

In Panama City, the Bay Med­i­cal Cen­ter Sa­cred Heart had roof, struc­tural and wa­ter dam­age. Michael left sub­stan­tial bro­ken glass, caused cool­ing and plumb­ing prob­lems and knocked out in­for­ma­tion sys­tems.

“Even with these chal­lenges, we are com­mit­ted to con­tin­u­ing to pro­vide emer­gency med­i­cal care for those in need through the emer­gency room on our main cam­pus,” hospi­tal CEO Scott Campbell said.

By late af­ter­noon Thurs­day, the Na­tional Hur­ri­cane Cen­ter said Michael was cen­tered about 20 miles north­north­west of Raleigh, North Car­olina. Its strength had eased since its an­gry land­fall, but Michael was still blast­ing sus­tained winds of 50 mph as it swept north­east at 24 mph.

Among the storm fa­tal­i­ties was an

11-year-old in Semi­nole County, Ge­or­gia, who was re­ported dead af­ter a tree fell on a home dur­ing the storm.

Parts of North Car­olina, still re­cov­er­ing from the re­lent­less rains of Hur­ri­cane Florence in Septem­ber, were hit with up to 9 inches of rain from Michael, the Weather Pre­dic­tion Cen­ter said.

“For North Car­olina, Michael isn’t as bad as Florence, but it adds un­wel­come in­sult to in­jury,” Gov. Roy Cooper said.

In Panama City, the cur­few was in ef­fect Wed­nes­day night and Thurs­day morn­ing to pre­vent loot­ing, but Jane Lind­sey, 72, took no chances.

She and her hus­band spent the night in lawn chairs guard­ing their store, the El­e­gant En­deav­ors An­tique Em­po­rium on Har­ri­son Av­enue. The wind tore off the roof, poured wa­ter into all three floors and blew out the front win­dows.

“We’ve never seen this kind of dev­as­ta­tion,” Lind­sey said, her feet crunch­ing the bro­ken shards that were her plate­glass win­dows.

Lind­say was so wor­ried about her store that she and her hus­band aban­doned their nearby home to the storm: “We don’t even know if we have a house left. We can’t leave here.”

Po­lice of­fi­cers spent the night pa­trolling the area and re­spond­ing to calls for as­sis­tance, mak­ing do with dam­aged pa­trol cars. The air smelled like a sawmill, a legacy of the thou­sands of shred­ded trees.

Fed­eral of­fi­cials pre­pared tarps for thou­sands of roof-dam­aged homes across the re­gion, and gov­ern­ment sur­vey ships checked coast­lines for ad­di­tional dam­age. Thou­sands of con­trac­tors are set to re­place util­ity poles and string new elec­tric lines, but the dam­age to busi­nesses will take far longer to fix.

Panama City and Panama City Beach are heavily de­pen­dent on tourism. About 17 mil­lion visi­tors an­nu­ally sun them­selves on the 27 miles of beaches.

“Panama City Beach is so re­silient, and the whole com­mu­nity will be work­ing to­gether to get things back up and run­ning,” said Jayna Leach, a spokes­woman for Visit Panama City Beach.

Ba­con re­ported from McLean, Va. Con­tribut­ing: The As­so­ci­ated Press; Kevin Robin­son, The Pen­sacola NewsJour­nal

KINFAY MOROTI/USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

Hur­ri­cane Michael smashed homes on Al­li­ga­tor Point in Franklin County, Fla. It was the strong­est storm to hit the Pan­han­dle.

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