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In a Florida coastal town wiped out by Hurricane Michael, tales of despair and survival

In a Florida coastal town wiped out by Hurricane Michael, tales of despair and survival
A boat sits among debris in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla. (Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

It was just after 1 p.m. when Talia Butcher peered out the front door of her double-wide trailer a few blocks from the beach and saw the water creep up the banks of the canal behind her home and into her yard.

Within minutes, the water covered up the tires of her black Chevy Equinox and carried the SUV across her cul-de-sac.

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Then it surged up under her mobile home, splitting the plywood-and-linoleum floor in half and seeping through her home like a fountain.

“Oh my God, we’ve got to get out of here,” the 39-year-old surgical technician screamed to her husband, Robbie, as howling gusts of wind shook the home.

They put on life jackets, grabbed their wallets, and rounded up their two dogs, Tyson and Dixie. Then they jumped out into the churning water.

About the same time, Hector Morales, a 57-year-old cook, leapt out of his bedroom window and clambered on top of his silver Hyundai Santa Fe.

Through gusts of white wind, he spotted Talia clinging to an oleander tree and struggling to drag Robbie, who has brain cancer, across the yard.

“I’m coming,” he cried.

Plunging into the waist-deep water, he steered them across the cul-de-sac toward their neighbor’s 30-foot catamaran, which was tied with ropes to two palm trees.

With murky water pushing them from behind, they hurtled into a utility pole, and Morales caught his leg in a tangle of wire. He wriggled loose just before the water carried him away and grabbed onto an oleander.

Scurrying around the side of the boat, he pushed Tyson up on to the deck, and then pulled Talia, Robbie and Dixie up on top. They quickly squeezed into the vessel’s cramped downstairs bathroom and shut the door tight.

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Hundreds of residents scrambled to escape the onslaught of water and wind as Hurricane Michael made landfall Wednesday on the tiny coastal town of Mexico Beach. They hunkered down in closets, climbed on top of refrigerators, floated on top of mattresses.

Bobby Baker was huddled in his parents’ one-story ranch-style home when a fishing boat crashed into its sliding glass doors. Minutes later, an RV slammed into the front, knocking out the brick walls.

The 51-year-old grocery distributor had stayed behind with his wife and two dogs to take care of his father, Robert, an 82-year-old Air Force veteran who is paralyzed from the waist down, and his mother, Beatrice, who is 72.

First, he set them up on a mattress in the front den, but when water burst into the house, the mattress floated higher and higher.

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“Jesus, my Lord,” his father cried as he propped his hands against the ceiling in order to breathe. “Save us!”

As the water swirled, Bobby struggled to pull his parents on the mattress out of the den. He propped his dad on the top of the door and then pushed him 3 feet under the water, up a corridor, to the opposite side of the house.

His wife, Michelle, grabbed on to a hinge on the hot tub in the sun room, and they pushed his dad and mom, and then his dogs, Bear and Buddy, on top of the hot tub. All around them, water swirled like a whirlpool.

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About a mile away, waves coursed through Highway 98, smashing a giant wooden beam into the front door of Charles Smith’s room in the Gulf View Motel. It knocked the door off its hinges, and then a pile of lumber and debris crashed through the front window.

Smith, 56, the motel’s owner, had picked a ground-level room, figuring it would be less vulnerable to wind. But as the water rose, he retreated into a back bedroom and piled four of his cats on the queen bed only to realize that wouldn’t be high enough. He snatched Toby and tossed him up on to a stairwell. But as he tried to grab another cat, a door slammed, trapping him in the bedroom.

Quickly, he jammed a piece of wooden debris up against the side of the door, opened the door and hurled Molly up the stairwell. A wave came in, knocking him backward, and then slinging him forward and sucking him into the laundry room.

A bedroom wall collapsed and he watched Milly and CJ float out of the room off in the water, smooth as sailboats.

Clambering on top of a fridge, he grabbed onto a fish tank stand. From there, he was able to climb halfway up the wooden staircase and shelter in a nook between the first and second stories.

Across Mexico Beach, survivors ventured out of their homes to a scene of devastation.

Miraculously, the catamaran, tied with rope to two palm trees, did not come loose.

Climbing down from the vessel, Talia and Robbie Butcher found their double-wide wrenched in half and the floors drenched. But a piece of stained glass, depicting the sun rising above the ocean, still hung from the kitchen window.

Morales’ white-and-yellow mobile home was shunted up against a utility pole and a palm tree, and his black Nissan Rogue lay skewed on the other side of the canal in a pile of lopsided boats and debris.

Pink insulation hung from his ceiling, his fridge freezer was on its side, and a small fish swam in his bathtub.

But he had some pork chops, and the Butchers’ propane grill was intact, so he dragged it to a neighbor’s patio and started grilling.

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On Nan Nook Road, Bobby Baker stepped out of his parents’ destroyed home to find his cars and motorcycles tossed into nearby yards. A stilt house had landed 400 feet up the street. Entire walls had been ripped off the front side of a neighbor’s home, exposing each room like a doll’s house.

Desperate to get his shocked father to safety, he walked through gale-force winds to check on his own home.

“Y’all all right?” a neighbor, Todd, hollered.

“No, I need to get my dad out of the house.”

Miraculously, his one-story gray stucco house was relatively unscathed, with only 3 inches of water. The beds were still dry, so he wheeled his father up the street and propped him up in a back bedroom.

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Charles Smith emerged from his destroyed motel to find his second-floor apartment dry. He propped up the front portion of the building with wooden 6-by-6s to avert total collapse.

Scouring the rubble, he found CJ, alive, on a pile of debris.

His hometown of 34 years was unrecognizable. The hurricane had ripped entire beachfront homes off their foundations, tossing them onto the other side of Highway 98, the main beachfront drag.

Splintered plywood and roofs, fridges and sofas, littered the two-lane street. Local businesses, from Sharon’s Cafe, a local brunch spot, to Toucan’s, the nautical seafood grill and bar where Morales worked, were razed.

“It’s bewildering,” Smith said Friday after walking down Highway 98. “You close your eyes and open them and can’t figure where you’re at. Everything is gone, gone, gone.”

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