If the nine-foot storm surge didn't get them, the 150+ mph winds did.
As Michael, the third-most-powerful hurricane to ever make landfall in the Continental US, prepares to make its exit into the Atlantic Ocean on Friday, many residents of the Florida panhandle are still in shock as those who fled try to return, and those who stayed recount watching in abject horror as their community was leveled by flood waters and wind during one of the most aggressive storms in US history. In interviews with reporters who managed the difficult journey to Mexico Beach to survey the damage, many residents struggled to choke back tears as they described how they watched in abject horror as the water and wind ripped homes from their foundations. Out of the chaos, many quickly realized that Florida Gov. Rick Scott's prophesy of "unimaginable devastation" had come to pass.
John Humphress, a storm chaser and drone pilot who spoke with the Associated Press about the damage, described the scene in Mexico Beach, Fla., what will be remembered as Hurricane Michael's "ground zero", in one word: "Apocalyptic."
According to state officials, some 285 people in Mexico Beach refused to obey the mandatory evacuation order and thus obtained a front-row seat to the destruction from what some meteorologists have described as "the perfect storm." While National Guard rescuers pushed into the storm zone on Thursday and rescued 20 survivors, the fate of dozens more remains unknown. FEMA Administration Brock Long put it best when he said the entire town of 1,100 had been "wiped out."
First responders were forced to wait until after daylight on Thursday morning to access Mexico Beach as flooding from the storm had left it entirely cut off.
Dawn Vickers, one of the rescued residents, said she had decided to sit out the storm with her daughter, mother and a friend who lived on a houseboat. At one point during the most violent phase of the storm, Vickers told the AP that she looked out a window and thought she saw a tree moving toward her house. But instead, her house was moving toward the tree.
Dawn Vickers, her teenage son, and her mother, didn’t evacuate. They were joined during the storm by a friend who lived on a houseboat. At one particularly violent point in the storm, Vickers looked out the window and thought a tree was moving — but it was really her house, ripped off the foundation.
It was floating in the storm surge.
An Associated Press reporter found Vickers and her family sitting next to a convenience store with blown-out windows Thursday.
"Our house would have probably been in the canal if it hadn’t gotten caught on some trees that fell," said 17-year-old Ryder Vickers, adding that the home split in two, like an egg.
Once the water receded, they climbed out a window, onto another house and over a boat, but because Dawn Vickers’ mother Patsy has a lung disease, they couldn’t go far. The four spent the night in one half of the waterlogged home.
"I’ve never been so scared in my life," said Dawn Vickers. "We were all praying, 'Just please get us through this.' I thought we were going to die."
While only 11 deaths from the storm have been confirmed (so far, at least), per the Washington Post, it's widely expected that this number will rise as rescue workers sift through the wreckage. Two Mexico Beach residents who stayed told the AP about an elderly woman - the mother of a friend - who lived in a cinderblock home about 150 yards from the beach.
The woman had stayed behind, thinking she would be okay - but the storm swiftly reduced her home to rubble. She had not been heard from since. So one woman and her ex-husband were out combing the rubble, searching in vain for any sign of her or her corpse.
Mishelle McPherson and her ex-husband looked for the elderly mother of a friend on Thursday. The woman lived in a small cinderblock house about 150 yards (140 meters) from the Gulf and thought she would be OK.
Her home was reduced to crumbled blocks and pieces of floor tile.
"Aggy! Aggy!" McPherson yelled. The only sound that came back was the echo from the half-demolished building and the pounding of the surf.
"Do you think her body would be here? Do you think it would have floated away?" she asked.
As she walked down the street, McPherson pointed out pieces of what had been the woman’s house: "That’s the blade from her ceiling fan. That’s her floor tile."
More than one-third of the population of Mexico Beach consists of senior citizens. And nearly half of the housing in the resort town is for recreational use. Most of the full-time residents are employed in the hospitality industry. As some of the evacuees tried to return, the pastor from a local church expressed optimism about the prospect of people rebuilding.
Bob Tenbrunesel’s home in Mexico Beach was damaged but not destroyed. On Thursday, he rode around town in the back of a pickup truck, surveying the damage. It was upsetting to see all of the places that he loved destroyed: Toucan’s Bar and Grill, Killer Seafood, Cathey’s Hardware and Tackle.
"This place will never be the same."
A similar scene was playing out in Panama City, where street after street, houses and other buildings had been ripped apart, boats and warehouses had been completely destroyed, roofs had been ripped from multiple structures and fallen trees and downed power lines littered the soft ground, the Guardian reported.
While the destruction was particularly acute along the coastline, utilities reported that more than one million homes and businesses in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Virginia and North and South Carolina were without power.
"It looks like an atomic bomb had hit our city," resident David Barnes told the Panama City News Herald. "Damage has been widespread."
One resident wept as he acknowledged the unfortunate truth in front of a reporter's microphone.
A Mexico Beach resident, Scott Boutell, was close to tears as he spoke to the same reporter in front of his wrecked house: "Our lives are gone here. All the stores, all the restaurants, everything. There’s nothing left here any more," he said.
Two hospitals in Panama City had been wiped out by the storm, and patients were being evacuated by airlift to another hospital in Pensacola, underscoring the absolute devastation left in the storm's wake. As Scott said - again - the storm was "an absolute monster" and "so many lives have been changed forever." Whether these coastal communities manage to rebuild still remains to be scene, but one thing is for sure: anybody bold enough to rebuild in the same spot is setting themselves up to relive this nightmare at some point in the future.