MEXICO BEACH, Fla. - The National Guard unit raced to clear rubble and power lines as it made its way along U.S. Highway 98. The goal: Blaze a path to this isolated beach town on Florida’s Gulf Coast, the place that bore the most devastating impact of Hurricane Michael’s landfall, so rescues could begin Friday.
Members of the guard unit from nearby Bonifay, Florida, knew all about Mexico Beach - population 1,072 - where in the past they had gone swimming in the surf and waved hello to friends at the Dollar General. But once they emerged onto the spot where the town had been, the devastation was nearly unfathomable.
The public pier had washed away. Entire blocks of houses were wiped clear off their foundations. The town's landmark El Governor Motel was gutted, its heated pool and Tiki Bar a pile of detritus, colorful beach umbrellas shredded and upended. The popular RV park looked like a junk yard. Beach houses were pulled off their pilings. Toucan's, a favorite seafood restaurant, lay in ruin.
"It was just gut-wrenching," said Staff Sgt. Andrew Pliscofsky. It was his fourth hurricane rescue operation, but he had never seen anything like it. "It was like a monster came through and kicked it all down. This all just shocked us."
Michael hit the beach here Wednesday afternoon as a Category 4 hurricane with 155 mph winds, slamming into the coastline and tearing through several inland communities. Though people knew the storm was coming, many thought it would not be as ferocious as it became.
As the National Guard arrived, Thomas Jett was out surveying the town after he weathered the storm there with this dog. He had waited too long to evacuate and then had to turn back when his van was nearly blown off the road.
"There's not a word in the dictionary to explain how bad it was," Jett said. "It's like the end of the world. . . . It's amazing anybody's still alive, still standing. . . . In the blink of an eye it's all gone. It's horrible."
Although Michael weakened as it moved north, downgraded to a tropical storm Thursday morning, it continued its assault into early Friday as it chugged through Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. It left at least 15 dead in its wake, victims of felled trees, airborne debris and flash flooding.
The death toll likely will go higher; emergency crews are still struggling to reach some of the hardest-hit areas on the Florida Panhandle, where homes were toppled and their contents strewn, officials said.
“Unfortunately, I think you’re going to see it climb,” William “Brock” Long, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said of the death toll at a briefing Friday. “I hope we don’t see it climb dramatically. But I have reasons to believe - we haven’t gotten into some of the hardest hit areas, particularly the Mexico Beach area.” Only one fatality had been discovered in the town as of Friday evening, but much of the community was flattened.
The storm headed out into the Atlantic on Friday, but many could feel the impact for days, as more than 1 million people from Florida to Virginia were left without power.
Along with residential coastal areas, officials said Hurricane Michael also caused significant damage at Tyndall Air Force base, which is adjacent to Mexico Beach on the Gulf. The "base took a beating," Col. Brian Laidlaw, the installation's commander and commander of the 325th Fighter Wing, wrote in a letter to the people who call it home, saying that the base requires "extensive cleanup and repairs." The base's fleet of F-22 fighter jets were unscathed.
On Friday, under a clear sky, Brenna McAllister, a former combat medic in Afghanistan, worked with other volunteer veterans to clear debris from more than 12 miles of roadway outside of Panama City. They used chain saws to buzz through fallen trees and hauled away massive debris, including waterlogged mattresses and washing-machine parts to create a path to homes that were effectively cut off from the world.
"All the emergency services - everything - the radio towers were down, the Internet, the phones," said McAllister, who works as a massage therapist and will probably be out of a job because so many of the hotels where she works were destroyed in Panama City. "We just got a convoy of veterans trained in working in war zones and went to work. It gives us a sense of purpose."
While there was significant focus on Florida's obliterated beachfront communities, there also are rescue operations underway far inland. Many people in the Panhandle live on dirt roads blocked by fallen trees, with rescue teams having to go in on foot. One resident of the town of Marianna, Chad Taylor, 66, a building contractor, said that there's not a chain saw for sale anywhere between Pensacola and Tallahassee, across the entire breadth of North Florida.
In Mexico Beach on Friday, rescue crews began their painstaking house-to-house search, offering stunned residents water and checking on their welfare. In return, a peppering of questions: When would the power be back? When would FEMA arrive?
"We're looking for anybody who is trapped," said cadet Matthew Pippins. They found no crises Friday morning. What they did find were stunned and shocked people who were glad to see the first officials in days.
Mexico Beach is a quiet vacation spot about 30 minutes east of Panama City that attracts snowbirds and tourists who pull glistening red snapper out of its waters. The town, which stretches for about five miles along U.S. Route 98, has managed to hold on to its charm by avoiding big-box stores and high-rise condominiums, said Mayor Al Cathey, whose family has owned a hardware store in the area since 1974.
"We're a proud little community," he said. "There's no corporate America here. . . . We're a unique little place, very close knit."
Marcy Elderman, 30, pulled out her gas grill and declared she was going to cook for everyone in her neighborhood, many of whom spent the previous evening sleeping in cars outside ruined homes.
"All of us feel like this is a community, and this is what's left," Elderman said. "We just stick together."
Home security alarm batteries emitted a constant chirp. The sharp smell of rot was beginning to set in. Nearly every home within sight of the water was grievously damaged, if not wiped off its foundation, flattened or roofless, windowless and doorless. Tangled messes of wood timbers, sodden pink insulation, electrical wires and household items were the only evidence of seaside homes and businesses.
Janet Kinch, who has had a home on the beach since 1989, returned for the first time Friday afternoon and was stunned into silence when she saw what Hurricane Michael had wrought. The foundation stilts remained, but almost nothing else - she found the peach and aqua tiles from her floors across the street, and she began hunting for the brand-new refrigerator.
"There's my new screen door," she said, looking behind the carcass of a nearby home. This was the second time she was sifting through the remnants of a destroyed house; she and her husband rebuilt here after Hurricane Opal swept their home away in 1995. "My husband just died two weeks ago. Oh, I can't believe this. The house is gone for the second time."
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, R, who has been visiting areas pummeled by the storm to assess needs, described Mexico Beach as being like "a war zone."
"There's one house that was on the beachside of that main road there, and it's on the other side of the road now," Scott said during a Friday briefing. "It was picked up by the storm surge and taken over."
During a tour of the wreckage, Cathey asked Scott how other places fared.
"You guys got it the worst," Scott replied.
Cathey spray-painted a board to read "City Hall" on Friday to serve as a makeshift community gathering place until a temporary building can be erected. He predicted that it would be months before the town had electricity, plumbing or water - its main water tower was blown over.
Cathey weathered the storm in his family's home, and after the winds subsided he staggered outside to see his entire neighborhood destroyed.
"I guess this is what they call devastation," he said, amid the ruins of the family store. "When you live on the coast, there's a price to be paid for that."
Sullivan reported from Mexico Beach, Wax-Thibodeaux and Gowen reported from Washington. The Washington Post’s Alice Li in Mexico Beach and Mark Berman, Joel Achenbach and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.