The scope of the devastation brought by Hurricane Michael came into sobering focus on Thursday as rescue workers searched a ruined landscape of splintered homes, toppled trees and upended vehicles that stretched across much of the Florida Panhandle.
The seaside community of Mexico Beach, where the storm made landfall, was a flattened wreck. Across the small sport-fishing town, piers and docks were destroyed, fishing boats were piled crazily on shore and townspeople wandered the streets in horror and wonder.
“These were all block and stucco houses – gone,” said Tom Bailey, the former mayor. “The mother of all bombs doesn’t do any more damage than this.”
And while Mexico Beach was the hardest hit, much of the Florida Panhandle was a landscape of collapsed buildings and compromised roads and water systems. Rescue teams evacuated hospitals, searched rubble for survivors and dropped emergency supplies from helicopters.
The storm’s rage spread across six states, and well more than 1 million homes and businesses were without electricity Thursday as Michael made its way seaward as a tropical storm. At least six people were confirmed dead, and officials appeared resigned that the toll would rise. Local governments imposed dusk-to-dawn curfews and told residents to boil their water. The American Red Cross said about 7,800 people slept in shelters Wednesday night.
“So many lives have been changed forever, so many families have lost everything,” said Gov. Rick Scott of Florida. “Homes are gone, businesses are gone. Roads and infrastructure along the storm’s path have been destroyed. This hurricane was an absolute monster.”
To go from town to town Thursday, and even battered block to battered block, was to see how Michael could be as capricious as it was destructive. In St. James, Florida, newer homes stood intact next to older ones that had been shattered into piles of soggy wood. Even some of the homes that had survived – barely – had their insides spilled onto the sand: refrigerators, seat cushions, life vests.
Beyond lives and homes, the storm seized community hubs, like two oak trees long used as a place to gather and talk in Greensboro, a small town in Gadsden County, Florida. By the end of the storm, they had crashed to earth.
One of four dead in Gadsden County was a man from Greensboro who had a heart attack Thursday morning. Rescuers, faced with a mess of debris, could not immediately reach him, but neighbours and others rushed in with chain saws and tractors, pulling away tree limbs to clear a path.
“This town got destroyed within 24 hours, but it took us 12 hours to bounce back harder than ever,” said Jay Stiles, a local firefighter. “Citizens came together.”
Reaching Greensboro at all was difficult because Interstate 10 was closed in several locations, blocked by debris. Travel across the Panhandle was arduous everywhere.
In Carrabelle, on the coast, even two National Guard trucks had to turn around when they came upon a hurricane-strewn barricade of fallen trees and broken buildings. Just before that impasse, which made communities like Apalachicola and Eastpoint inaccessible from one direction, the storm had cratered a road as if an earthquake had struck, too.
Across from a pungent paper plant in Springfield, Michael Williams, 70, stood shirtless in his yard with a sign that read “HELP. Anything. Food. Water.”
Williams, who is on disability, said he thought the storm would come and go quickly, so he had not stocked up on supplies for himself, an 8-year old boy and an autistic woman for whom he is caring. A tangle of fallen trees had blocked his truck. He was stuck, he said, and desperate. Someone had given him some cans of ravioli, and he said he had made a campfire to warm it outside.
As for the sign, he said, “I used to see people in the road do this and now I understand why they do.”
The storm’s effects reached deep into the Panhandle. In the town of Marianna, more than 60 miles northeast of Panama City, roofs were torn off buildings, pine trees had snapped, and piles of bricks and debris were strewn across downtown streets.
“All the power lines are down, and there are trees everywhere,” said Leroy E. Wilson, Jr., who was driving from his home outside Marianna to Dothan, Alabama. “This is the worst storm we’ve ever had in this area. It was very, very bad.”
David Bishop, who drove into town Thursday to check on his parents, said that chain saws were “the hot commodity here.”
Florida suffered the greatest destruction, but there was also widespread damage in Georgia, parts of which Michael struck after it weakened to a Category 3 hurricane, with winds of at least 111 mph.
Although Georgia’s southwest is sparsely populated, state officials reported at least one fatality, an 11-year-old girl whose home was hit by a flying carport, and said the storm had devastated the farmland that powers rural Georgia’s economy.
“Our worst dreams are being realized,” said Gary W. Black, the state agriculture commissioner, who said he had seen pictures of cotton that a farmer harvested Wednesday, before the hurricane tore through Georgia.
“This morning, you cannot tell where he stopped harvest, and where the rest of it was harvested by the storm,” Black said.
President Donald Trump, speaking at the White House about the widening devastation across the South, said the nation had not “seen destruction like that in a long time.”
“The big problem with this hurricane was the tremendous power,” he said, “and, fortunately, it was very fast.”
By Thursday afternoon, Michael had slugged its way through South Carolina as a tropical storm and was making its way across North Carolina, its heaviest rains in the central and western parts of the states. Local officials had already rescued some people from flood waters by evening.
The storm’s track took it mostly away from the eastern parts of the Carolinas, which had been devastated just a month ago by Hurricane Florence. Major river flooding was not expected, though the winds were high and listing trees were watched warily, given the already saturated soils.
In Florida, the road to Mexico Beach became passable Thursday morning, less than 24 hours after Michael made landfall, and it became evident that few communities had suffered more. Known for its sport fishing, the city of about 2,000 permanent residents swells to as many as 14,000 in July, and is known for having a relaxed, small-town feel compared to the brash tourist strips of Panama City Beach or the tony nearby beach developments of Alys Beach or Seaside.
But this week, after winds that reached 155 mph, much of the town was in ruins. There were few locals to be found, and fewer tourists.
Bailey, the former mayor, and his wife had ridden out the storm underneath his home in a bunker of sorts that he built. The home itself was left largely roofless and uninhabitable. On Thursday, he was riding around on a bicycle, trying to put the pieces back together in his mind.
“It’s just absolutely stupid and ridiculous what I’m seeing,” he said. “Houses that have been here forever are gone.”
Officials were not allowing visitors to drive into town because the roads were barely passable, but convoys of military trucks and Humvees were moving in, while hard-hatted search-and-rescue crews went door to door – although often there were no doors – to search for survivors and bodies.
In the late morning, two men from the New Orleans Fire Department could be seen searching the second story of a raised home, the face of which had been sheared off by the wind. From the ground level, the rescue workers looked like dolls in a dollhouse.
They eventually descended, axes in hand, and spray-painted an “X” symbol well-known to New Orleanians after the horror of Hurricane Katrina. The firefighter wrote in paint the name of the search crew, the date the place was searched and the number of bodies inside. In this case, the firefighter painted a big zero.
Then it was a trudge on to the next house. They took care not to even enter homes that were leaning sideways. There was no gas or electricity. Misfiring house alarms chirped incessantly like electric cicadas.
The New Orleans rescue crew said they had not found any bodies as of lunchtime Thursday, but such searches take time. Rescue teams generally grid out areas that they are assigned to search, and crews walk block to block, announcing their presence with shouts to see if anyone responds from the rubble. To save time, the rescuers do not approach every house and instead look for signs that someone might have stayed home during the storm – a car in a driveway, a running generator – and decide whether to come closer.
The few locals sticking around said they knew that this was the first phase of a recovery that would take years.
Nate Odum, 53, an owner of the badly damaged local marina, said that some people might have been spooked enough to leave for good. But he was confident that Mexico Beach would come back. If it was cursed with being in a hurricane zone, it was also blessed.
There were many wealthy fishermen in the Southeast, he said, and they would be lured back here so long as there were dolphin, wahoo, and blackfin tuna to be caught.
“We’re the front porch to some of the best fishing in the Gulf,” he said. “You’ve just got to take it day by day.”