Hurricane Michael Leaves Many Florida Communities In Ruin
NOEL KING, HOST:
Along the Florida Panhandle, whole communities are without electricity and cellphone service after Hurricane Michael. It was the most powerful hurricane ever to hit that part of Florida, and many communities are simply in ruins. One of the areas that was hit hardest is the place Hurricane Michael made landfall. It's called Mexico Beach. And NPR's Greg Allen was in Mexico Beach yesterday, and he's with us now. Greg, good morning
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: All right. So we're hearing of terrible devastation. What does Mexico Beach look like now?
ALLEN: Well, there were very few houses in that town, small kind of quiet community, that came through unscathed. It's right near, as you mentioned, the place that Michael made landfall and when the storms came up shore with those 155-mile-per-hour winds. Many houses lost their roofs. You saw entire walls missing. Whole buildings in many cases were gone. Walking by one house that sticks out in my memory, it - the whole front of the house was missing. You could look right into the kitchen. You know, like, all of North Florida, this area is heavily wooded There are pine trees everywhere, and those pine trees just snapped - whole forests just in half like matchsticks. And those falling trees did a lot of the damage throughout the entire area. We saw many houses crushed under trees.
The wind also snapped power poles, putting wires onto the roads. Power is out for nearly all the customers in some of these Panhandle counties. Fortunately in Mexico Beach, most people evacuated, but some did stay. We met a man named Lance Erwin who was out working with his neighbor to replace parts of his roof which came off in the storm. He says it was much, much worse than he expected. He was in a place that he considered his safe room with his dog and cat when he says things really got bad.
LANCE ERWIN: The wind was so strong the house was actually shuddering. And I just got a real bad feeling it was coming directly this way. And something - like, something just said you need to go. So we got out and came to my backup safe room down here in the laundry room. And that window exploded, and glass is stuck in the wall and everything. It would've gotten us for sure.
ALLEN: As bad as it was, Erwin says, he's glad he stayed, and he'd do it again. A handful of people in Erwin's neighborhood also stayed. Pat Hendricks lives just a few doors down.
PAT HENDRICKS: There's water. You can't - don't worry. You can't do any harm.
HENDRICKS: So this is where I slept the night before. So...
ALLEN: In the hallway?
HENDRICKS: In the hallway.
ALLEN: Hendricks had more than a dozen trees - pines, oaks, a gum tree - all snapped in half. And two of the largest towering pines fell on the room she usually sleeps in. She took us into her bedroom where one of the trees now pokes through the ceiling.
HENDRICKS: This is the tree limb. There's the - you can see sky.
ALLEN: Another local, Lance Hanson, grew up in Mexico Beach.
LANCE HANSON: Before, it was paradise. It was the most beautiful secret location you could have for a vacation - the best beach in the whole world.
ALLEN: Hanson rode out the storm along with his uncle and his 98-year-old grandmother in the family's house a block back from the beach. He says he's sorry they did. The storm blew off much of the roof, but the nightmare that he calls it didn't end there. Houses where the gas had been left on caught fire in Mexico Beach threatening to burn down the entire neighborhood. Now, he'd like to evacuate. But with his hometown in ruins, with trees, power lines and poles blocking all the roads, he's not sure it's even possible.
HANSON: This is a war zone. How are you going to get out of here? This city is destroyed. The whole area is going to get - they're going to tear down all these houses and rebuild it. You're not going to recognize Mexico Beach.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAW BUZZING)
ALLEN: Crews are working to clear trees which still block roads leading in and out of Mexico Beach. Joe Whaley says he and his wife lost every tree in their yard, but their house surprisingly took little damage. The same isn't true for the rest of the town. Driving down Highway 98, the beach road, Whaley says, was sobering.
JOE WHALEY: Everything that was on the waterside is now on the land side. The Lookout Lounge, which was right here, you'd have to find a sign just to see what it - that you knew that's what it was 'cause it's collapsed.
ALLEN: You know, Joe Whaley says one thing is certain. He and his wife aren't going to stay for another hurricane like this one.
KING: I mean, Greg, those stories were terrifying. When you asked people, why did you stay, what did they tell you?
ALLEN: You know, you hear so many different reasons. Some of those who stayed say they thought it was going to hit as a Category 3 hurricane, not a monster high-end Category 4 storm. It was almost a Category 5, you know?
ALLEN: One man we talked to faulted the National Hurricane Center and the news media for not providing a more accurate forecast to let him know that he should leave. Another person I talked to had surgery scheduled, but of course that's been postponed now. And the hospital he was going to be in has been evacuated. Some say they stayed because with the blocked roads and the police checkpoints, it's so hard to get back to your home after the storm. You hear this here and many other places. Every day away is another day for a house that's missing windows or roofs to take even more damage, you know, from rain and from the outside elements.
KING: Any idea when residents who did evacuate will be allowed back?
ALLEN: That's not clear at this point. You know, for now, the county says only first responders and work crews are being allowed back in. Even local residents are being told it's not safe yet to return. The people who are there we talked to - some of them wanted to go out and start looking for supplies, like ice, maybe pick up a generator. But they were told if they left, they wouldn't be able to come back. And so they felt kind - feel kind of trapped there. We also talked to some people who - they can't their cars out because there's so much rubble, power lines down on the roads. You know, it's a very difficult situation. But, you know, help is on the way. As we were leaving, we saw - local residents say they're being told by FEMA there's - some relief should be coming. And they're hoping for ice and the restoration of cellphone service.
KING: Just quickly, with the infrastructure being in ruins, how'd you get there yesterday?
ALLEN: Well, it was quite a long, hard drive in. We came from Tallahassee, which is just 2 1/2 hours away usually. It took nine hours.
ALLEN: Every major road, including Interstate 10, was blocked. We followed road crews for quite a while as they cleared trees to get there. By the time we got to Mexico Beach, we had saw people who were surprised to see us 'cause, you know, not many people had arrived there at that point.
KING: NPR's Greg Allen, thanks.
ALLEN: You're welcome.
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