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A trail of destruction in the Florida panhandle

A trail of destruction in the Florida panhandle

Storm left buildings collapsed, hospitals damaged, roads and water systems compromised and more than 1 million without electricity
A trail of destruction in the Florida panhandle
Wreckage and debris in Mexico Beach, Fla., on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018.
Photographer: Eric Thayer/The New York Times

MEXICO BEACH, Fla. — Search-and-rescue teams rushed Thursday to reach communities that Hurricane Michael leveled, hoping to find survivors of the powerful storm after its rampage through the Florida Panhandle and beyond left buildings collapsed and splintered, hospitals damaged, roads and water systems compromised and more than 1 million homes and businesses without electricity.

Although it was clear by afternoon that the storm had caused widespread damage, some areas remained largely cut off, and authorities were trying to deploy rescuers by helicopter and boat. At least six people were killed, and with the death toll expected to rise, the Panhandle and counties to the north were a vast, staggered disaster zone.

“This is a very dense part of the state, so it’s going to be a lot of work to get to everybody,” Gov. Rick Scott of Florida said. “But we will get to everybody.”

At least four deaths were linked to the storm in Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee, according to Lt. Anglie Hightower, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office. The victims included a man who died when a tree crashed down on his home in Greensboro.

An 11-year-old girl, Sarah Radney, was killed Wednesday when a carport was torn away and was sent hurtling into the modular home she was in, said Chad Smith, the coroner of Seminole County, Georgia. “She was sitting right next to her grandmother,” said Smith, who described the girl’s death as a “horrible accident.”

Wreckage and debris left by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla., on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018.  A vast search-and-rescue operation was underway on Thursday after Hurricane Michael cut a brutal path through the Florida Panhandle, leaving communities in its wake to confront splintered homes, twisted metal and flooding that reached to the rooftops of some homes. (Eric Thayer/The New York Times)Wreckage and debris left by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla., on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. (Eric Thayer/The New York Times)

A man died when a tree fell on his car as he was driving near Charlotte, North Carolina, just before 1 p.m. Thursday, said the Iredell County fire marshal, David Souther.

Emergency officials rushed to evacuate more than 300 patients from storm-damaged hospitals in Panama City. In total, four hospitals and 11 nursing facilities were closed in Florida. A nursing facility in Georgia was also closed.

Much of the coast of the Florida Panhandle, including parts of Panama City and Mexico Beach, was left in ruins. The area is dotted with small, rural communities, some of them among the poorest in the state. Evacuation was difficult.

At 2 p.m. Eastern time Thursday, Michael was about 25 miles south of Greensboro, North Carolina, heading northeast with sustained wind speeds of up to 50 mph. Now a tropical storm, it is moving relatively quickly, at 23 mph, and is expected to speed up as it crosses the Carolinas and blows out to sea by early Friday.

More than 1.1 million homes and businesses were without electricity Thursday, state agencies and utility companies said.

“The big problem with this hurricane was the tremendous power,” President Donald Trump said Thursday, adding that “we’ve not seen destruction like that for a long time.”

Michael took the nation by surprise, intensifying rapidly from a tropical storm to a major hurricane in just two days and leaving little time for preparations.

Mexico Beach was ground zero when the storm hit

Ted Carranza could only watch with horror and wonder as Hurricane Michael lifted the houses all around him in the small town of Mexico Beach, Florida, then spun them around and dropped them.

“It was insane,” Carranza said Thursday from the town where the storm had crossed onto land a day earlier. It was a city in ruin. All around him, in places where there were once houses, now there were mere piles of lumber, junked home furnishings, mangled roofing, fishing rods, ceiling fans, sheets, clothing, bottles.

“These were all block and stucco houses — gone,” said Tom Bailey, 66, a former mayor of the city, gesturing to a flat beachside plain riddled with junk piles and a few bent trees.

The roads became passable into town Thursday, 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 like Alys Beach or Seaside.

Wreckage and debris in Mexico Beach, Fla., on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018.  Search-and-rescue teams rushed on Thursday to reach communities that Hurricane Michael leveled, hoping to find survivors of the powerful storm after its rampage through the Florida Panhandle and beyond left buildings collapsed and splintered, hospitals damaged, roads and water systems compromised and more than a million homes and businesses without electricity.  (Eric Thayer/The New York Times)Wreckage and debris left by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla., on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. (Eric Thayer/The New York Times)

But Mexico Beach is now a splintered, flattened wreck, with expensive boats pushed up halfway onto land, piers and docks destroyed, and the main street through town piled with the jumbled remains of permanent homes and vacation places.

“The mother or all bombs doesn’t do any more damage than this,” said Bailey, a retired U.S. Army major, as he pushed his bicycle down the main drag, marveling at the damage.

Officials were not allowing visitors to drive into town, as the roads were barely passable, but convoys of military trucks and Humvees were moving in, while hard-hatted search-and-rescue crews moved 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.

Bailey was asked if there was anything that could be done to help.

“Yeah,” he said, pushing off on his bicycle, “turn back the clock two days.”

Damaged hospitals are evacuating patients

Bay Medical Center Sacred Heart, a 300-bed hospital in the heart of Panama City, Florida, was a tumultuous mess Thursday morning. Hurricane Michael had strafed the center, breaking windows, damaging roofs and stripping off the outsides of some buildings. Signage was strewn in the streets. Doctors, nurses and staff members wandered outside, some crying, some looking for cell service.

Bay Medical was one of two hospitals in Panama City — the other being Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center — that was damaged in the storm. Both were evacuating patients.

Bay Medical said in a statement that about 200 patients would be evacuated, including 39 intensive care patients who will be transferred first, to hospitals outside the affected area. About 1,500 people had taken shelter in the hospital, the statement said.

The hospital was in poor condition to take in patients. Staff members said the hospital had partial electricity from its generators; there was no water and the toilets were filling up. Windows were broken. One staff member said that the fourth floor was flooded. She had tied plastic bags over her shoes and the legs of her scrubs.

Dr. Brian Roake, the head of the anesthesiology department, was among those who rode out the hurricane in the hospital. “It was like hell,” he said.

‘Extensive damage’ at an Air Force base

Tyndall Air Force Base, which straddles a narrow spit of land jutting out into the Gulf, a dozen miles south of Panama City, “sustained extensive damage,” a post on the base’s Facebook page said.

Winds topping 130 mph knocked down trees, felled power lines, tore roofs from buildings, and ripped a static display of an F-15 fighter jet at the base entrance from its foundation, pitching it into the air and tipping it upside down.

Fortunately, “there have been no injuries reported on Tyndall at this time,” the Facebook post said.

The base, which sits just 9 feet above sea level, is home to a series of hangars and a runway, as well as tree-lined neighborhoods for about 600 Air Force personnel. The base hosts a number of jets, including F-22 Raptor stealth fighters, which cost well over $100 million each. The base commander ordered all jets to fly to inland bases earlier in the week.

It was unclear Thursday if the runway was usable. Base officials said they were assessing damage. It was not known when personnel would be able to return.

Other Air Force bases along the coast, as well as a Navy base in Panama City, have resumed limited operations.

Emergency crews are heading into the hardest-hit areas

Scott said Thursday that Michael had left a wide trail of devastation, and that authorities had turned their immediate focus to rescue efforts.

“We are deploying a massive wave of response, and those efforts are already underway,” Scott said. “Help is coming by air, land and sea.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he had heard from local authorities who described extensive damage. “These are not people prone to hyperbole,” Rubio said on CNN. “Panama City is catastrophic damage. Someone told me, ‘Mexico Beach is gone.'”

The other areas of greatest concern were the eastern parts of Panama City, Apalachicola and around Tyndall AFB, said Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Long said that he was equally concerned about communities in southwest Georgia, which received Category 2 wind speeds, because of the large number of mobile homes in that part of the state. “We are always worried about trees falling on manufactured homes and mobile homes,” he said.

Early reports suggested significant damage. Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia said 450,000 homes and businesses were without power in the state, and that 35 hospitals or nursing homes were without electricity and operating with generators.

“Right now, the main focus is going to be on debris removal so that power line trucks and repair crews can access the areas that are without power,” Deal said at the state Capitol in Atlanta.

Long expected the search-and-rescue process to be challenging, given all the fallen trees, debris and downed power lines. He worried that the number of people killed in the storm would rise once crews reached places where people did not evacuate.

“People do not live to tell the tale about storm surge,” he said.

Florida officials also pleaded with residents to stay off the roads as crews tried to clear debris and emergency workers were scrambling to hard-hit areas. They asked people to avoid downed power lines, and not to drive through flooded areas. They urged residents and visitors to keep emergency phone lines open and, in some areas, to boil their water or use bottled water. They told them to position generators at least 15 feet from homes, and to stay indoors.

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