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Florida’s Panhandle coast devastated by historic Hurricane Michael

'The whole town is gone:' Hurricane Michael wipes out Florida coastal community (Video: Alice Li, Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

SPRINGFIELD, Fla. — Entire oceanfront communities in the Florida Panhandle were virtually obliterated, an Air Force base suffered “catastrophic” damage and at least six people were killed by Hurricane Michael, a sucker-punch of a storm that intensified suddenly and now ranks as one of the four most powerful hurricanes ever to strike the United States.

“This one just looks like a bomb dropped,” said Clyde Cain, who is with the Louisiana Cajun Navy, a group of volunteer search-and-rescue teams that went to Florida to help in Michael’s wake, just as they did last month during Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas.

Michael was downgraded to a tropical storm Thursday as it sped its way northeast through Georgia and the Carolinas on a path out into the Atlantic Ocean. But its relatively short assault on Florida’s Gulf Coast was devastating.

Tiny Mexico Beach, Fla., a town of about 1,000 residents, appeared to be have been almost destroyed by Michael’s 155 mph impact — just 1 mph short of a Category 5 storm. Aerial footage showed much of the seaside enclave reduced to kindling, trees sheared off just above the ground, tangles of power lines strewn in the streets and cars and boats piled up like rubbish. Entire blocks seemed essentially empty, with houses and everything else that had been on them smashed by storm surge and wind and presumably washed out to sea.

“This is not stuff that you just put back together overnight,” said William “Brock” Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Official states of emergency were declared in Alabama, Georgia and as far north as the Carolinas and Virginia, which are still reeling from the devastating floods of Hurricane Florence. Hundreds of thousands of people remained without power late Thursday across the Southeast, and some areas were essentially cut off more than 24 hours after Michael made landfall, with roads blocked by massive trees and cellphone service completely out.

The rain and wind from the storm caused flooding and power outages in Virginia cities along the North Carolina border and in the central part of the state. Nearly 145,000 Virginians were without power Thursday evening, according to the state’s Department of Emergency Management.

Curtis Locus, a Florida Department of Transportation worker, said the damage he has seen across the Panhandle is unprecedented.

“This was a community in the middle of the forest. Now the forest is gone, and so is the community,” Locus said. “It’s a beautiful place. . . . This is Party Town, USA. Now it’s Devastated Town, USA. Everything along the coastline was devastated like a war zone.”

Here in Springfield and nearby Panama City, apartment buildings are roofless, gas station awnings are twisted beyond recognition, businesses collapsed, metal posts as thick as tree trucks were folded in half, and billboards were blown onto homes or crushed cars.

“We didn’t figure it was going to be this bad,” said Mike Davis, 56, sitting on the sidewalk outside Oasis Liquor, a store on Panama City’s 15th Street, staring dully at the debris around him. “This is devastating.”

Davis lives two blocks away and rode out the storm with his family. He decided to stay because he didn’t think the storm would be very bad. When he woke Tuesday and heard that Michael had intensified, it was too late to leave.

Michael was as powerful as it was unexpected, careening across the Gulf of Mexico and intensifying rapidly into a powerhouse. The night before the hurricane hit, police told Georgia Wells, 35, that she and her family were in a safe zone here in Springfield in a public housing complex. By Wednesday afternoon, shortly before landfall, it was clear they were in terrible danger.

Her six children, mother and brother gathered in the smallest bedroom of their apartment. As the winds howled and shrieked — Wells said it sounded more like a tornado than a hurricane — the drywall began to tear apart, the roof started to collapse and water flooded in. They ran for cover in a bathroom. The apartment was destroyed.

“We all thought we were going to die; that’s how bad it was,” she said.

Wells, a single mother who works as a manager at a local McDonald’s, lost most of her belongings.

Families that live in the complex slept in cars and on benches Wednesday night and were planning to do the same Thursday.

“Everyone in this place has nowhere to go. We’re stuck,” Wells said. “We don’t have money to go anywhere.”

Michael also pummeled Tyndall Air Force Base, set directly on the shoreline between Panama City and Mexico Beach, causing “widespread roof damage to nearly every home and leaving the base closed until further notice,” officials said in a statement.

The base’s 600 families had been evacuated Monday, and many were taken to shelters to ride out the storm. No injuries had been reported there as of late Thursday.

Aerial footage showed buildings destroyed and a parking lot looking like a salvage yard filled with overturned RVs and trucks. A display of an F-15 fighter jet at the base entrance was torn from its base and flipped upside down.

Rescuers continued to search for survivors and victims of the storm on Thursday as authorities warned that the death toll could rise.

In Gadsden County in northwest Florida, not far from Tallahassee, which took a direct shot from Michael, the sheriff’s office reported four deaths related to the storm. It released details of only one: a man who was killed when a tree crashed through the roof of his home.

A 38-year-old man was killed Thursday afternoon in North Carolina’s Iredell County, north of Charlotte, when a tree fell on the vehicle he was driving, according to David Souther, the county’s fire marshal.

Officials in Seminole County, Ga., north of the Florida border, said early Thursday that an 11-year-old girl in a mobile home was killed by a metal carport that was thrown into the air by Michael’s gusting winds.

“This one is so powerful that my guys are having to use chain saws to cut through downed trees to get into the neighborhoods,” Cain said. “This one is just real bad, and no one saw it coming.”

Meteorologists had seen Michael coming and had been warning for several days that it was a serious storm. But what they did not anticipate, many said, was Michael’s furious intensification in the hours before it made landfall, and how far inland it managed to maintain that ferocity.

“Wow! This one we weren’t expecting,” said Steve Bowen, director and meteorologist at the risk consultancy Aon, who works with insurance agencies to analyze natural disaster risk. He said Michael broke many rules because it “maintained hurricane intensity nearly 200 miles inland.”

Bowen said Michael, the most intense hurricane on record to strike the Panhandle, is likely to lead to a rethinking of building codes in the area.

“The homes aren’t really built to withstand these sorts of winds in the Florida Panhandle,” he said.

He and other officials estimated that Michael’s damage would run into the billions of dollars, even though the storm did not strike a major population center as Hurricane Harvey did when it made landfall in Texas and then hovered over Houston last year, dropping record amounts of rain.

Michael blasted apart homes, businesses and landmarks across a part of Florida not accustomed to direct hits from monster hurricanes.

Hurricane Michael devastated Georgia Wells’ home in Springfield, Fla. Now, she and her six children have no power and nowhere to go. (Video: Jon Gerberg, Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post, Photo: Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

“I hate to say this, but we are sending these first responders into a war zone,” Ford said. “I used to be a deputy sheriff in Texas, and we had a tornado come through, and this is what it looked like. It looked like a nuclear bomb went off.”

Ford, an Air Force veteran, is president of Healing Tools for Warriors, which works with veterans and first responders with PTSD to help out in natural disasters, “and make them a part of society again — let them know they are heroes.”

He said two veterans had decided to stay in Panama City during the storm.

“Some guys with PTSD don’t want to go to shelters because it’s hard being in crowds,” he said. “It’s hard for them to evacuate.”

Those two veterans were eventually rescued by the National Guard after “the roof had blown off” the building they were in.

Penny Pinkham, founder of Healing Tools for Warriors, said she and others from her organization are seeing “awful” things. She said much of the Bay Medical Center’s roof was torn away.

“There’s just devastation everywhere,” she said, adding that many people were still communicating by walkie-talkies on Thursday because cellphone service was still down.

Ford said scores of other veterans were helping out, clearing debris and assisting emergency responders. “We are loading up water and blankets, and we are taking stuff to anyone who has nothing,” Ford said. “And that’s looking like a lot of people.”

On St. George Island, about 75 miles southeast of Panama City, Nick Cabrera, 39, and his wife Amy, 37, rode out the storm along with eight children, ages 2 to 16.

Amy Cabrera is the innkeeper for the St. George Inn, where they sheltered. She said they considered leaving.

Kevin Begos in Apalachicola, Fla., Carmen K. Sisson in Panama City, Fla., and Katie Zezima in Washington contributed to this report. Lazo reported from Springfield, Fla., and Panama City. Berman, Wax-Thibodeaux and Sullivan reported from Washington.