‘It’s a miracle you and I are alive’: Mexico Beach, Fla., residents search what’s left after Hurricane Michael
Aerial image of damage to homes and flooding after the arrival of Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla.(JAMES E WYATT/ EPA / Rex / Shutterstock)
People walk around the destroyed portion of Alligator Drive, in Alligator Point, Fla.(TAILYR IRVINE / Tampa Bay Times)
U.S. Customs and Border Protection crew conduct a search and rescue operations in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael among damaged homes and flooding in Panama City, Fla.(GLENN FAWCETT/ EPA / Rex / Shutterstock)
A body is removed after being discovered during the search of a housing structure in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla.(David Goldman / Associated Press)
Entire blocks were destroyed in Mexico Beach, Fla., two days after Hurricane Michael devastated the small coastal town just outside Panama City, Fla.(Pedro Portal / Miami Herald)
Flyover of the Florida panhandle in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael shows a destroyed boat yard near Panama City, Fla.(GLENN FAWCETT / AFP/Getty Images)
Tom Bailey walks his bike past a home that was carried across a road and slammed up against a condo complex as Hurricane Michael passed through the area in Mexico Beach, Fla.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Rescue personnel perform a search in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla.(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
Storm-damaged boats in Panama City, Fla.(Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images)
The coastal township of Mexico Beach, Fla., population 1,200, lies devastated a day after Hurricane Michael made landfall.(Douglas R. Clifford / Tampa Bay Times)
A boat storage building is collapsed in Panama City Beach, Fla.(Chris O’Meara / Associated Press)
Damage from Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla.(SevereStudios.com)
Mishelle McPherson climbs over the rubble of her friend’s home in Mexico Beach, Fla.(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
Dr. Patricia Cantrell, left, and Ana Kaufmann with the South Florida Search and Rescue Task Force survey damage at the western edge of Mexico Beach, Fla.(Douglas R. Clifford / Tampa Bay Times)
Gavin Conklin, 17, gathers water bottles from a neighbor’s refrigerator after Hurricane Michael destroyed the home in Panama City, Fla.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Hector Benthall, right, gets a hug from his neighbor, Keito Jordan, after a tree crashed onto Benthall’s home in Columbia, S.C.(Sean Rayford / Getty Images)
The overhang of a gas station is toppled over in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Inlet Beach, Fla.(Emily Kask / AFP/Getty Images)
Amanda Logsdon begins the process of trying to clean up her home after the roof was blown off in Panama City, Fla.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Kathy Coy inspects what is left of her home after Hurricane Michael destroyed it in Panama City, Fla. She said she was in the home when it was blown apart and is thankful to be alive.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Men cut a tree that fell on a vehicle in Panama City, Fla.(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
Phlomena Telker stands on what was her covered porch after hurricane Michael tore the roof off her home as it passed through the area in Panama City, Fla.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
The storm surge retreats from inland areas, where boats lay sunk and damaged at the Port St. Joe Marina in the Florida Panhandle.(Douglas R. Clifford / TNS)
Bo Lynn’s Market starts taking water in the town of St. Marks, Fla., as Hurricane Michael pushes the storm surge up the Wakulla and St. Marks rivers, which come together in St. Marks.(Mark Wallheiser / Getty Images)
A woman and her children stand near a destroyed gas station after Hurricane Michael passes through Panama City, Fla.(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP/Getty Images)
People walk through the wreckage of a building after the arrival of Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Fla.(DAN ANDERSON / EPA / Shutterstock)
Haley Nelson inspects damage to her family belongings after Hurricane Michael made landfall along Florida’s Panhandle in Panama City.(Pedro Portal / Miami Herald)
People walk through the wreckage of a building in Panama City, Fla.(Dan Anderson / EPA)
Mike Lindsey stands in his Panama City antique shop after Michael’s winds broke the windows.
(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Kaylee O’Brian weeps inside her home after several trees fell on it when Michael hit Panama City, Fla.(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
A hotel canopy collapsed on cars in Panama City Beach, Fla.(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
A hotel employee holds a glass door closed as it breaks from flying debris in Panama City Beach, Fla.(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
People look at a damaged store after Hurricane Michael hit Panama City, Fla.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
The Oceanis is grounded ashore by a tidal surge at the Port St. Joe Marina.(Douglas R. Clifford / Associated Press)
Haley Nelson stands in front of the remains of one of her father’s trailer homes after Michael hit Panama City.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
A man walks through a flooded street in Panama City, Fla.(Dan Anderson / European Pressphoto Agency)
People walk among downed trees in a heavily damaged neighborhood in Panama City, Fla.(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
Mitchell Pope tries to salvage what he can from his mobile home after the Wakulla and St. Marks rivers overflowed in St. Marks, Fla.(Mark Wallheiser / Getty Images)
Cameron Sadowski walks through crashing waves as Michael’s outer bands hit Panama City Beach, Fla.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
A storm watcher takes photos of the surf and fishing pier on Okaloosa Island in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., as Hurricane Michael approaches.(Devon Ravine / Northwest Florida Daily News)
A satellite image of Hurricane Michael as it moves north-northwest over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico.(NOAA)
People fill bags with sand at the Lynn Haven Sports Complex while preparing for Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Fla.(Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images)
Beach visitors await the approach of Hurricane Michael in Panama City Beach, Fla.(Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images)
Waves crash against the Malecon esplanade in Havana, triggered by the outer bands of Hurricane Michael.(Ramon Espinosa / Associated Press)
Krystal Day, left, leads a sandbag assembly line at the Old Port Cove restaurant in Ozello, Fla. Employees were hoping to protect the restaurant from floodwaters as Hurricane Michael continues to churn in the Gulf of Mexico heading for the Florida Panhandle.(Chris O’Meara / Associated Press)
The effects of Hurricane Michael are seen along the coastline of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo.(Alonso Cupul / EPA)
Carol Cathey spray-paints words on the plywood over her daughter’s business in preparation for Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla.(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Xavier McKenzie puts a 20-pound bag of ice into his family’s car in Panama City, Fla., as Hurricane Michael approaches.(Joshua Boucher / Associated Press)
Workers board up the windows of Marco’s Pizza in Panama City Beach, Fla.(Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images)
Nick Severson carries his daughter, Aubrey, as they and others walk the beach in Destin, Fla. Waves from Hurricane Michael pounded the shoreline of this Florida Panhandle resort town.(Devon Ravine / Northwest Florida Daily News)
Workers scramble to store boats before the arrival of Hurricane Michael in St. Marks, Fla., south of Tallahassee.(Mark Wallheiser / Getty Images)
Weaving around the debris on Highway 98 in a red golf cart — dodging a washing machine to the left, and a detached roof to the right — Jackie Spann scanned the horizon for her home of 27 years, a three-story stucco house with a Spanish-style roof.
“It’s gone,” the 83-year-old retired aerospace worker cried suddenly as she neared the canal on the west side of Mexico Beach on the coast of Florida’s Panhandle. “My house is gone.”
Hurricane Michael had made landfall nearby less than 24 hours earlier, and the beach town of 1,072 people was a mass of rubble.
Residents across the region Thursday struggled to recover from the devastation caused by Hurricane Michael, which left more than a million people across the southeast U.S. without power and some communities devastated by the storm’s intense winds and coastal floods.
At least 11 people have been killed by the storm, the most powerful hurricane on record to hit Florida’s Panhandle, and the third most-powerful hurricane on record to reach the U.S. The death toll jumped early Friday when the Virginia Department of Emergency Management reported five Michael-related fatalities in the state. The agency said four of the deaths involved people being swept away by floodwaters and that the fifth was a firefighter killed in a crash.
Four deaths had been reported in Gadsden County, Fla., about 40 miles inland from where the Category 4 hurricane made landfall with 155-mph winds, ravaging the coastal cities of Panama City and Mexico Beach.
In Panama City, the largest coastal city near where Michael made landfall, the storm’s winds were so intense that a cargo train was blown off its tracks and some structures were partially demolished. The winds blasted through the brick walls of a middle school gym, where a volleyball net remained standing. The wind also punched out every letter of a Waffle House sign.
In smaller nearby Mexico Beach, the damage was even more intense, as some neighborhoods were washed away by a powerful storm surge that flooded the vacation community.
The main two lane-highway was littered with roofs, walls, doors, A/C ducts, sofas, armoires, chairs, kitchen sinks. The wooden pier was gone. The roof of the Fish House had caved in. Entire blocks of condos were razed.
Stepping down from her friend’s golf cart, Spann walked gingerly around the canal — piled high with wooden rafters, fridges and bookcases — looking for her cats, Pebbles, Lil’ Willie, Rusty, and Callie, and her neighbor, David.
“Where are my cats?” she said, making her way in black flip-flops around Fiesta plates and Pyrex bowls and clambering on top of mounds of plywood and roof shingles. “I wish I could see a cat.”
She lingered as she passed her neighbor’s gray one-story home — the roof was torn to shreds — then trudged on.
“That was where my house was,” she said, pointing to an empty spot with a few palm trees in front of a foundation. “What about that? My palm trees survived and my house didn’t.”
After walking in circles around the foundation of her two-car garage, she paused for breath on her neighbor’s deck.
“Callie!” she cried faintly, cupping her hands over her mouth. “Willie!”
There was silence — except for the blare of a siren and the buzz of a military helicopter above.
The weakened storm was on track to make an expected exit into the Atlantic Ocean by Friday morning after bringing some inland flooding across the Carolinas.
An 11-year-old girl was reportedly killed by falling debris in Seminole County in southwest Georgia, where the storm maintained hurricane strength while passing through the state, devastating rural farmers’ cotton and pecan crops before sweeping through South Carolina and into North Carolina as a weaker tropical storm. Another man was reportedly killed north of Charlotte when a tree fell on his vehicle.
“Our prayers are with those who lost their lives and with their families, and our hearts are with the thousands who have sustained property damage — in many cases, entirely wiped out,” President Trump said in a statement from the White House. “We will do everything in our power to help those in need, and we will not rest or waver until the job is done and the recovery is complete.”
Michael’s quick progress means it won’t have a chance to trigger the same widespread, epic flooding as past slow-moving hurricanes such as Florence and Harvey, which unleashed seemingly endless rains after stalling and hovering inland. At minimum, it left enormous wind and storm surge damage.
Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott said a “massive” effort was underway to clear roads that had been blocked by fallen trees, branches and power lines, hampering the ground response as aerial and water rescue crews made contact with hard-to-reach areas devastated by the storm.
Tyndall Air Force Base, located between Mexico Beach and Panama City, took a “direct hit” from Michael’s landfall, which caused significant structural damage and left the runway’s use still in question, Air Force officials said in a statement. The base had been evacuated before the storm and no injuries were reported.
The damage around Panama City and Mexico Beach was so extensive that Bay County law enforcement officials blockaded entry for anyone who was not a relief worker.
In Mexico Beach, the city logo is two beach chairs facing the ocean. The population from seasonal tourism sometimes soars to 10,000.
“Welcome to our humble slice of paradise!” the city says on its website. “No words are needed to explain the laid back, easy-going attitude that is our community.”
Adrian Welle, 33, the town’s city clerk who had knocked on doors the afternoon before the hurricane hit, said that about 100 households had planned to ride out the storm.
One of them was Tom Bailey, the town’s former mayor, who took shelter underneath his house as the winds blew off his shingles and ripped off the plywood and roofing rafters.
“The whole house got whipped,” the 66-year-old retired Army officer said as he stood on 37th Street, surveying the damage and pointing to empty blocks of rubble that used to be packed with beach condos.
After pedaling around town on his beach cruiser, checking his friends’ homes and surveying the damage, Bailey had little good news to report.
“So far I haven’t seen any still standing,” he said. “I’m telling people, if you live on the south side of Highway 98, don’t bother to come back.”
Nate and Melba Odum, the owners of the local marina, holed up in a family member’s fourth-floor condo. While that structure survived relatively intact, they emerged to find the hurricane had destroyed their marina and ripped the walls and roof off their condo, sucking the bed out of their daughter’s bedroom.
“Look, the dresser’s still there,” Melba said, pointing up at the lone piece of furniture.
“I never thought it would be this catastrophic,” Nate said as they stood in a parking lot, packing a guitar, rifles, cowboy boots and jewelry to store in their brother-in-law’s condo.
“I just can’t believe it,” Melba said. “My life has stopped right now. I don’t have a home and I can’t go to work anymore.”
Many residents who had survived the storm worried about neighbors they hadn’t heard from. With power and cellphone coverage out, news spread slowly.
Just as Spann got ready to climb back up on the golf cart after surveying the site of her destroyed home, she spotted a man wheeling a bicycle through the debris.
“David!” she cried.
Her friend, David Mullins, bounded over, grinning as he told her he had been trying to look for her.
“God bless you,” he said.
He put his arm around Spann as they scanned what was left of their neighborhood.
“It’s a miracle you and I are alive,” Mullins said.
Jarvie reported from Mexico Beach and Pearce from Los Angeles.
Oct. 12, 5:30 a.m.: This article was updated with Virginia officials reporting five deaths related to the storm.
5:05 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Mexico Beach residents and other details.
9:40 a.m.: This article was updated with details from areas hit by the hurricane and the storm’s path.
This article was originally published on Oct. 11 at 7:24 a.m.
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