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.