Floridians hope for best with quarter of town missing
Mexico Beach, Fla. — Crews with backhoes and other heavy equipment scooped up splintered boards, broken glass, chunks of asphalt and other debris in hurricane-flattened Mexico Beach on Sunday as the mayor held out hope for the 250 or so residents who may have tried to ride out the storm.
The death toll from Michael’s destructive march from Florida to Virginia stood at 17, with just one confirmed death so far in this Florida Panhandle town of about 1,000 people that took a direct hit from the hurricane and its 155 mph winds last week.
Crews worked to clear building debris along with the rubble from a collapsed section of the beachfront highway.
Mayor Al Cathey estimated 250 residents stayed behind when the hurricane struck, and he said he remained hopeful about their fate. He said search-and-rescue teams in the beach town had already combed areas with the worst damage.
“If we lose only one life, to me that’s going to be a miracle,” Cathey said.
He said enough food and water had been brought in for the residents who remain. Even some cellphone service had returned to the devastated community.
A framed portrait of Jesus was propped Sunday facing out of the window of Diana Hughes’ home in Mexico Beach. She rode out the hurricane on the couch huddled with her dog and her ex-husband.
The storm peeled off a small section of the roof and a few inches of water got in the single-story house. But the pickup truck wouldn’t start after getting swamped with water. Hughes still had her home, but no way to leave it.
“We need a generator, but we just lack transportation,” Hughes said on her front porch. “We’ve got food and we’ve got water. But we’ve got to keep ice in the refrigerator so the food won’t spoil. You can only eat so many crackers.”
President Donald Trump plans to visit Florida and Georgia on Monday to see the damage.
Four days after the storm struck, a large swath of the Panhandle was suffering, from little beach towns to the larger Panama City to rural communities miles from where the hurricane came ashore. About 190,000 homes and businesses in Florida were without electricity.
“There are a lot of inland areas, some of these poor rural counties to the north of there. These counties took a devastating hit,” Sen. Marco Rubio said on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”
“And we are talking about poor people, many of them are older, miles from each other, isolated in many cases from roads, including some dirt roads that are cut off right now. We haven’t been able to reach those people in a number of days.”
Mary Frances Parrish is expecting to be without electricity for weeks, or roughly the same time the terminally ill son she’s caring for is expected to live.
In the days after Michael smashed through her neighborhood, leaving many of her neighbors’ homes destroyed, she and her son Derrell, 47, were planning to stay, with or without running water and electricity. The reason is the same she waited out the storm in the tiny house: She doesn’t have a running car and she doesn’t know where she would go.
“I didn’t have a way of getting away from here. My car’s under repair and there’s nowhere to go or the money to pay for a place,” the 72-year-old Parrish said. “People are sending stuff in. I’ve got plenty of water, I’ve got cold drinks, I’ve got plenty to eat. It may be right out of the can, but it’s plenty to eat. As long as you can have plenty to eat and drink and stay in good spirits, you’ll make it.”
Parrish, whose son has cancer, is in a position many in the Panama City region are facing. They have damaged homes, no power, and don’t have the resources to relocate, either to a new home or a temporary home. While others with more means have gobbled up hotel rooms in Destin 45 miles to the west, there are many who now no longer have a job and are forced to stay in damaged homes.
Some victims stranded by the storm managed to summon relief by using logs to spell out “HELP” on the ground, officials in Bay County, which includes Mexico Beach, said in a Facebook post. Officials said someone from another county was using an aerial mapping app, noticed the message and contacted authorities.
No details were released on who was stranded and what sort of help was needed.
For the few residents remaining in Mexico Beach, conditions were treacherous.
Steve Lonigan was outside his home, talking with neighbor Jim Ostman, when a loud cracking sound made both men jump. It was just a small wooden block shifting in the sand beneath the weight of the front end of Lonigan’s camper trailer.
“All this stuff is just dangerous,” Ostman said, glancing at the destruction all around. “It’s so unstable.”
Lonigan and his wife returned Sunday after evacuating to Georgia. Seawater surged into his home, leaving a soggy mess of mud and leaves, even though the house stands 12 feet above ground on concrete blocks.
The single-story house had broken windows, and part of its roof and front steps were missing. Lonigan used a ladder to climb inside.
“We’ve got a lot more left than other people,” he said. “We were able to sleep in the bedroom last night.”
In hard-hit Panama City, pastor John Blount held Sunday services at St. Andrew United Methodist Church outdoors, in front of a wall demolished by the storm. Afterward, the church held a large cookout for the storm-weary.
Untold numbers of people across the region have damaged homes and no power and don’t have the means to relocate, either to a new or temporary place.