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At hurricane ground zero, where it’s like ‘a bomb went off,’ grueling cleanup begins

Contractor crews started cleaning the streets of Mexico Beach on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018, two days after Category 4 Hurricane Michael devastated the small coastal town in the Florida Panhandle.
Contractor crews started cleaning the streets of Mexico Beach on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018, two days after Category 4 Hurricane Michael devastated the small coastal town in the Florida Panhandle.

What will be a long and grueling cleanup at ground zero of Hurricane Michael started in force early Friday with residents like Chris Hester taking on the work with their own hands.

Hester’s first task — ripping out the rain-soaked carpet from his condo. “To start to keep the mold from coming into effect,” he said, hauling out a foul, heavy mess.

Just two days after the fiercest of Michael’s 155 mph winds and roof-level surge literally flattened most of the homes and businesses in this small beachside community, recovery efforts were kicking into gear. The work began against a backdrop of ruin in the form of mammoth mounds of splintered walls, whole displaced roofs and crushed cars.

Search and rescue continued through late Friday. Earlier in the day, the body of one man was found in the rubble, according to Miami Fire Rescue Chief Joseph Zahralban, who traveled to the area with a contingent of rescuers from South Florida.

“The individual was found as part of a rubble pile,’’ he said.

That brought the death in Florida to eight, and 17 nationwide.

Rescuers recovered his identification and went to his house, which the storm had destroyed. They determined he lived alone and no other family members were missing. Police did not identify him.

Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey, a hardware store owner, borrowed a satellite phone from a TV news crew and finally got through to a store outside the disaster zone.

“Get me what you got,” he barked, kneeling down to pick up tiny nails from the pavement. “We’re going to be here a while. We need generators. Have you got any more gas cans? All right, buddy, you’re a life saver.”

Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey borrowed a news crew’s satellite phone on Friday to order emergency supplies and generators. Pedro Portal

Soon, heavy equipment arrived, along with tree trimmers, insurance inspectors, National Guard Humvees and Florida Gov. Rick Scott. With a roar, a bulldozer cleared the main road one twisted chunk of debris at a time. Volunteers handed out Dr Peppers and water bottles.

Crews with National Storm Contracting, which has cleaned up storm damage across the southeastern United States, had only to go down the road a few miles from their headquarters in Port St. Joe. The giant claws of their grapple trucks plucked hunks of wood off the street and into the back of the vehicle’s bed.

“This time, the storm came to us,” said the company’s executive assistant, Kaitlyn Holder, as she held a clipboard and watched the crews work.

The work pace picked up steadily through the day, even though the scale of the disaster seemed overwhelming and no one had electricity, running water or cellphone service.

Even Scott, who has toured a number of hurricane zones in the past two years, seemed stunned at the severity of the damage.

“Mexico Beach … It’s like a bomb went off. It’s like a war zone,” Scott said during his visit Friday morning. Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, called it “wiped out.”

Some buildings lost entire roof structures in Mexico Beach, where cleanup began Friday, two days after Category 4 Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle. Pedro Portal

Just 30 miles from Panama City, the largest town in Bay County, Mexico Beach has just over 1,000 residents and was a destination known for a quiet family-style appeal that drew vacationers, mostly from Georgia, and many part-timers.

That charm was scoured away. Destroyed were restaurants with names like Toucan’s and Mango Marley’s. The building that housed Frost’s Pottery vanished completely, leaving vivid Mexican-style shards spilled onto the road.

The sheer devastation shocked homeowners who returned on Friday. The storm surge collapsed a portion of U.S. 98 near the famed El Governor Motel, which lost an entire wing. Its pool disappeared completely.

U.S. 98 became a minefield of debris: a few whole houses, countless wood beams, ripped up AC units, dressers, cars deposited atop other cars. A red truck, which was parked under a condo overhang before the storm, got flung a couple of homes away into the brush — on the opposite side of a canal.

The smaller debris dotting the main street underscored happier beach times: a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle plastic beach bucket, a fake Christmas tree, a “Cinderella” child’s book, a kayak, a pool table. A DVD of the biographical movie “The Hurricane,” starring Denzel Washington, lay caked in sand.

Down the road, Tammy Pullen arrived with her daughter to start piling up their trashed belongings buried in the muck outside their condo. The efforts were cosmetic, just a way to keep busy and feel helpful.

“We’re just trying to make room, trying to pick up a bit. We don’t really know what to do,” Pullen said.

Upstairs, husband Joey Pullen was drilling a metal sheet over the blown-out window of their second-story unit, to at least keep out the rain. He’d meant to do it before Hurricane Michael but time ran out. He walked down the stairwell, crunching a carpet filled with glass bits.

“Where do you start? I don’t know where to begin,” Joey Pullen said, sighing.

Mexico Beach residents were stunned by the extent of damage, as was Gov. Rick Scott during a visit on Friday. Pedro Portal

Many of the efforts started with residents themselves. Ashley and Clary Crosby, who live in Georgia but own a home in Mexico Bay, surveyed the damage in a rugged camouflaged golf cart. They were waiting for reinforcements. Their family company had dispatched dump trucks and excavators to help clear the roads.

“Most people in this little town will be back. And they’ll be down here as soon as they can,” Ashley Crosby said. “That’s just how close this little town is and how much it means to everyone.”

Then there was Mayor Cathey, who drove up and down the beach, followed by reporters, giving sound bites in a deep Southern drawl. He said a command post was being set up to coordinate relief efforts for residents. Earlier in the day, he said he believed everyone had been accounted for.

The recovery, Cathey said, will not be easy.

“We don’t have any water, sewer, power,” he said. “I don’t even know how long that will take. … As devastating as this is, hopefully, this will be a distant memory in a couple years. But it’s certainly going to be months.”

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