The awful toll has yet to be calculated, but Hurricane Michael’s damage is likely to be massive along the Panhandle and Florida’s Forgotten Coast, now a hellscape of flattened neighborhoods, ruined businesses and upended lives.
At ground zero where Michael crashed ashore in Mexico Beach, house after house was razed to concrete slabs and piles of splintered wood. The place looked eerily like South Dade after Hurricane Andrew. Helicopters hovered over the state’s largest mental hospital in Chattahoochee, dropping food and water after the storm left patients and staff stranded without power, communications or a way out.
And in Panama City, powerful winds toppled train cars completely off the old Bay Line railroad tracks.
As evacuees and utility trucks struggled Thursday afternoon to enter the city, the largest in the area at just 37,000, a four-mile traffic jam formed.
“It’s like a bad dream,” said Deborah Adams, 28, who cleans condos on the beach and moved to the area two years ago with her two children in search of better-paying work. “Like the whole city is gone.”
At least three deaths were blamed on the storm: a man killed outside Tallahassee by a falling tree, an 11-year-old girl in Southwest Georgia killed after winds blew a carport through her roof, and a driver killed by a tree in North Carolina. But the number is likely to climb. CNN reported the count had risen to six by day’s end. Gov. Rick Scott’s office said additional deaths would need to be confirmed by a medical examiner.
After touring the damage zone, Scott cautioned evacuees to stay away until emergency crews cleared the area. “I know you just want to go home,” he said. But “we have to make sure things are safe.”
When it made landfall, Michael was packing 155 mph sustained winds, the strongest ever recorded for the Panhandle. It’s possible the storm will go down as the fourth most powerful hurricane to strike the U.S. after forecasters complete their analysis. As of late Thursday, power had been knocked out to nearly a million homes in the storm’s path, including more than 360,000 homes and businesses in Florida.
Intensive care patients and critically sick or premature babies had to be rescued from four hospitals that lost power. Sacred Heart in Pensacola evacuated 200 patients, state officials said. Gulf Coast Hospital moved out 145. Field hospitals were being set up, and could likely serve the community for an extended time, they said.
About 1,300 patients and staff at Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee, the century-old mental health facility and once a barbaric prison, were stranded, using emergency radios to communicate with rescuers. Michael’s eye passed directly over the hospital, which was not evacuated and houses 40 percent of the state’s mental patients. State officials said the hospital had backup supplies and additional water and food were delivered as a precaution.
In Panama City, Michael meted out indiscriminate damage.
Charles Burgess holed up in his Pawaday Inn, a kennel with a dozen dogs, two cats and several staffers, thinking the concrete block building could survive fierce winds. But as the storm roared, the structure collapsed.
“The roof caved in. Then the walls caved in,” said Burgess, who fled with his staff and most of the animals to an inner room. One cat was killed and another animal remained missing.
Near ground zero in Mexico Beach, where the National Hurricane Center said pounding storm surge reached nine feet, Michael leveled entire blocks. The National Guard rescued 20 people Wednesday night and the search for others continued. At least 285 people had refused to leave, officials said.
“Do you think her body would be here? Do you think it would have floated away?” Mishelle McPherson asked as she and her ex-husband searched for a friend’s elderly mother in the rubble of a Mexico Beach home.
The woman lived in a small cinder-block house about 150 yards from the Gulf and thought she would be OK. All that was left Thursday was a pile of concrete blocks and floor tiles.
“Aggy! Aggy!” McPherson yelled. The only sound that came back was the echo from the half-demolished building and the pounding of the surf.
All around, toppled trees, refrigerators, toilets and staircases no longer connected to houses littered the low-slung beach town with a population of just 1,200. Cars and SUVs were tossed on their sides. Houses were cracked open to reveal sodden furniture and wrecked belongings.
In Apalachicola about 35 miles to the southeast and just inside the perimeter for hurricane winds, a tidal gauge recorded water at 8.55 feet before 7 p.m. Wednesday. At a boat ramp in Spring Creek, water crested at 7.72 feet.
Damage surveys were just beginning, but destruction was widespread. Michael left buildings smashed, trees toppled or stripped bare and boats tossed ashore along its path. At the Tyndall Air Force Base, about 15 miles northwest of Mexico Beach, the monster storm pushed over trucks and peeled back the roof of a massive airplane hangar. Many fighter planes had been moved to Ohio earlier in the week, but news crews spotted at least a few flipped and mangled.
Panama City looked like a war zone, as helicopters hovered over streets littered with debris and ominous reminders of past hurricanes. The toppled train was reminiscent of the 1935 Labor Day hurricane that struck the Keys. High-rises had walls peeled away. At the Pirate’s Cove Marina, boats were heaped in piles after Michael shredded a dry dock warehouse.
Just more than 3,500 people remained in shelters Thursday, about half the number who’d sought refuge overnight. Another 1,768 were staying in special needs shelter facilities.
Officials said the staggering number of people who did not take shelter could be newly homeless, and the state expects a massive surge in short-term and long-term housing needs.
Scott said no damage estimates were available, but before the storm, real estate analyst CoreLogic said about 57,000 homes and condos were at risk of damage. President Donald Trump declared a disaster in counties hardest hit by the storm just before noon Thursday, freeing up additional federal money for relief efforts.
Authorities said they were preparing to set up extra shelters and move people into more secure areas. They are posting information about recovery efforts, road and bridge openings and the status of evacuation orders on FloridaDisaster.org.
For the first time, they also plan to use remote sensing and geotag photo technology to assess damage and update residents in real time, said Richard Butgereit, CIO for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
Outside the city marina in Panama City, Randall Jones searched the rubble for his boat, the Fear Knot. Suddenly, he spotted portions of the boat, sunk and tangled up with other vessels.
“There she is. I can tell by the woods and railings. Sh--,” said Jones, a retired U.S. Army veteran.
Jones wasn’t too worried about the boat, but feared the hurricane may have cleared the way for the city to build a controversial project with restaurants and a hotel, driving out working class boaters like Jones.
“This is our marina,” he said as he looked at the damage. “It’s just heartbreaking. How much joy we had down here with friends, getting together, going out to the islands. It’s going to be a while before we do that again.”
Tampa Bay Times reporters Emily L. Mahoney and Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report, along with The Associated Press.