Farrel Brown stood in what used to be his home, staring out at what used to be a pleasant waterfront neighborhood along the unfortunately named Scenic Highway.
He didn't recognize any of it. Empty file cabinets, videocassettes, tax documents, a giant safe, cracked tables, chairs, fishing poles, boxes of cat litter, encyclopedias, torn pages from the Naval War College Review -- much of his and his neighbors' worldly possessions, all mixed up in the same ankle-deep pond of mud and debris. Down the street, a black Jeep drowned in new swampland and someone's caved-in garage seemed a breath away from tumbling into the bay.
It was the morning after Ivan.
Across Florida's Panhandle, people woke up Thursday to a Gulf Coast transformed. The forecasts in recent days had given many residents hope that the storm would narrowly miss the coastal resorts and tourist towns on the western edge of the state. Instead, they bore much of the brunt of the storm and Florida suffered most of the 20 deaths that authorities attributed to Ivan.
At least nine tornadoes spawned by the hurricane touched down in Bay County. One of them flattened the home of a 77-year-old woman, killing her. Another tornado ripped the roof off a real estate office in Panama City, flinging debris that killed an 84-year-old man.
From Panama City to Pensacola, from rural areas to historic downtowns, from hospital buildings to McDonald's restaurants to the tiny House of Prayer on U.S. 98, little was spared. Ivan did not play favorites as it blew through a region of great wealth and great poverty, damaging multimillion-dollar cliffside homes, small wooden residences, mobile homes, auto shops, hair salons and restaurants.
"It happened fast," said Aaron Johnson, 43, describing the moment late Wednesday when a large chunk of drywall from the ceiling on his small wooden Pensacola home fell on top of him as he lay on the sofa. "It scared me."
Thursday morning, Johnson carefully stepped over the white-painted roof that was now his floor, trying to decide what to do, whom to call, where to go -- questions that many Floridians faced.
Like many in the Panhandle, Johnson got little sleep Wednesday evening. Outside shelters, boarded-up homes and the taped windows of motel rooms, the wind whistled through door frames, and rain gusts whipped so hard and steadily it sounded as if the Daytona International Speedway was next door. Buildings moaned and rattled and creaked.
At a Days Inn outside the evacuated downtown area of Pensacola, power went out for the few dozen guests Wednesday evening -- and then the phones went dead, and then the plumbing in the bathrooms started making gurgling sounds. At the Olde Town Tavern, just below the lobby, about a dozen people sat around the bar about 6 p.m. as the lights flickered off and on.
Owner Eddie Moore, 46, thought of his place as more than a bar for the time being; he thought of it as a kind of shelter. "I think it keeps people more comfortable," he said. "I'd much rather be out with a group of people than just sitting there listening to the wind blow."
In the daylight Thursday, in powerless and phoneless Panhandle cities and towns, people walked around in a daze, overwhelmed by the scale of ruin. Broken streetlights swayed from their wires right above passing cars. Power lines twisted in the wind like snakes. In Pensacola, stray dogs chased debris blown by the wind outside an auto shop that lost part of its roof.
Outside town, a white boat -- "Patty's Pumpkin, New Orleans, LA" -- had been pushed up against an overpass by strong winds, its antennas bent and sticking out over the sidewalk.
Throughout the Panhandle, there was a sense of civilization turned upside down. Tree limbs littered residential streets, boulevards and interstates, so people made their own lanes, driving on curbs and on the side of the highway. Large sections of a major bay bridge, Interstate 10, were swallowed up in the raging waters, forcing motorists to find new routes.
On the Scenic Highway, Brown carefully stepped into the ground-floor office of the three-story wood-and-brick home he has lived in for about five years with his son. The office no longer had a back wall, and the back yard was now the high waters of the bay. He figured the water went up about five feet, to the bottom of his front stoop, during the storm.
"Messy, isn't it?" said Brown, who works for a utility company and headed for higher ground north when the storm hit. He was surprisingly upbeat. "What's the other choice I got? I don't have any other way to do it."
Along the cliffside homes to Brown's left and right, within sight of the demolished I-10 bridge, nothing was where it was supposed to be. Chairs from the back yard were in the front. Life jackets floated atop the muck. Cars that had been parked in front of one home were now three, four houses down. Brown had another safe in the mud there somewhere. Like other Panhandle residents, he thought it would be bad, but not this bad. "I wasn't expecting this," he said.
Later, in the afternoon, as the sun appeared from behind the clouds, the victories were small, and basic. Two men, standing outside an old, blue-painted brick building in Pensacola that had been rendered a shambles by the winds, its metal roof cast to the street, carefully lifted the fallen sign. They propped it up against a fence, to let passersby know this was indeed Barbara's Collectibles & African Accessories.
Staff writer Mary Fitzgerald in Washington contributed to this report.