MEXICO BEACH — Walking around his shattered beachfront town, Mayor Al Cathey repeated the stunned refrain of many residents along the sleepy Florida coast: We didn’t know it would be this bad.
On Thursday, dawn broke over total wreckage.
Splintered wood, mangled cars and washing machines littered the streets. Attics were torn from their frames and deposited hundreds of yards away, with totes still stowed in the eaves.
"We’re broken here," said Cathey, 71. "This devastation is beyond. I think it’s sort of obvious we need some help."
The mayor said he had a list of phone numbers for emergency management officials, right up to Gov. Rick Scott’s office, but there was no cell service or power, so he couldn’t communicate with the outside world.
Mexico Beach was totally cut off.
About 1,200 residents live here full time, Cathey said, and roughly 280 stayed. The police chief had the list of names, but he was in Panama City — miles away on a good day, now totally out of reach.
"We don’t know if they’re accounted for or not," Cathey said.
He walked down U.S. 98 with his son, Lee, and friend, Charles Smith, owner of the Gulf View Motel. Lee carried his shotgun, which he found in the street, plucked by wind or water and thrown from the family’s hardware store. They grabbed bottles of water from a refrigerator left in the middle of the highway.
"We can’t do anything until we clear this road," Cathey said of the highway, one lane in either direction. "This is our Main Street."
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Large chunks of pavement were washed out or covered by broken wood, metal, kayaks, boats, sofas — pieces of lives altered by the storm. Sand had blown ashore in huge, wet banks. Overnight, a building burned to the ground, with no one there to fight the fire. The flames sizzled above the sound of waves crashing across the street. Up the road, two people waved flashlights into the black, searching for help for an elderly woman suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Early Thursday, the smell of smoke still hung over a section of Mexico Beach, mixed with the stench of leaking natural gas.
With a population that swells as large as 6,000 during tourist season, the city only has 36 employees to work cleanup, Cathey said, and just small pieces of machinery meant for scraping the scenic beach — not for cleaning up piles of rubble as high as stilt homes.
"We’re a throwback community," Cathey said. "There’s no corporate America here. There’s no McDonald’s. There’s no Walmart."
Now the Mexico Beach staircases go nowhere, lying sideways in the street, and the colorful doors to beach cottages are 10 feet up with no way to reach them. Homes along the highway look like doll houses torn up in a tantrum — bedframes, hutches, toaster ovens and sitting chairs stacked in soggy piles.
The pine trees that weren’t snapped in half are bent away from the water as if in fear. They point like arrows, showing which way the wind blew.
Cathey and his family rode out Hurricane Michael in their home, retreating to the interior when the wind and rain got so bad they couldn’t even see out the window.
"We just huddled in the bathroom and said a prayer," Cathey said.
His friend Smith rode out the storm in the motel, where the storm surge rose fast.
"You couldn’t see the water," Smith said. "You could only see the debris."
The flood sent him off his feet and briefly under water with his cat.
"My refrigerator hit me," Smith recalled. "Queen-sized bed tried to run me over."
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From Mexico Beach to Port St. Joe, further east on U.S. 98, everyone recalls the same terrifying timeline.
They awoke Wednesday to word Hurricane Michael was a Category 4. That was unexpected. The wind picked up about 11 a.m. growing stronger and stronger. The power went out. And then the center of the storm came ashore, just to their west, leaving them under the powerful top right quadrant.
"The wind and rain, it took turns," Fran Boaz said. The gusts were "just relentless," nearly matching the fiercest tornadoes she lived through in Tennessee. Half a mile inland in Mexico Beach, Boaz said, her townhome saw 4 feet of water. "It was just like somebody created a river," she said.
Danny Gabriel, 18, recalled panic coming on fast.
"Once noon came around, it was just pure chaos," he said. The wind shook the first-floor condo where he and his family took shelter. He feared the walls would collapse.
"I thought: This is it," he said. "I’m going to die."
Gabriel walked down the main drag of Mexico Beach alone Thursday morning in a cutoff shirt, carrying a carton of cigarettes. The community pier was wiped out, the pumps at the nearby gas station gnarled into knots. Emergency crews, from as far as New Orleans, staged at the western edge of town. Later, they picked over broken buildings with axes, hammers and search dogs, looking for people hurt in the storm.
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Just beyond the eastern edge of Mexico Beach, at the far reaches of Port St. Joe, a trio of residents who rode out the storm awoke to check if their SUV would start. Bob Jones, 49, was able to get the portable lighter to flare up a Marlboro Light.
He had stayed behind with his landlords, Cindy and James Murphy. Their two-story apartment building on U.S. 98 was a total loss. They planned to sell in the spring, they said, and now expect to market only a lot. They’re insured for $70,000, Cindy Murphy said, but lost much more.
When Hurricane Michael was approaching, they anticipated a Category 3. The water had never crossed the highway into their home, said James Murphy, 66. But the storm turned out to be much stronger — even than Opal, the 1995 hurricane many longtime residents here had considered their worst.
When the power went out, James Murphy began checking his barometer. The pressure was dropping rapidly, 923 millibars — a sure sign the storm was coming closer and growing fiercer.
Then the water rose, crossing the white line at the beachside edge of the highway.
"We had hardly two minutes," said Cindy Murphy, 58, recalling their escape. Outside, the wind was already tossing sheets of plywood through the air. James Murphy fell to the ground, laying down while he waited for the debris to pass. They ran into a neighbor’s empty house higher up than their own.
The wind grew stronger still, shattering the windows. Together with Jones, they ran to a back bedroom. Cindy Murphy thought they were going to die. She could no longer even hear the wind, just the popping glass.
"The whole house starts filling up with air and becomes the hurricane itself," James Murphy said.
But the storm surge didn’t reach them and their neighbor’s little concrete home stood up.
Murphy and Jones’ apartments did not. The roof was torn up, and the storm surge deposited Jones’ white pickup in a tangled pile with his landlord’s classic red Mazda Miatas.
The Murphy’s dog, a Bichon named JJ, survived, but a cat, Whitty, was missing. An A-frame home from across the road, on the beach, had come to rest on their front lawn. Another house from across the street was totally gone — they had no idea where. Two stilt homes, more recently constructed, stood high and firm.
Inside their apartment, the Murphys found bits of other people’s lives and the wreckage of their own. Vegetation from the Gulf of Mexico was on their floor, in their cabinets, coating the cans and the spice containers, flecking the peeling ceiling. They called for their cat. James Murphy’s knee was still bleeding from his fall the day before.
"We’ve got to start the day," he said. "And look for a few things that are missing."
Times staff writer Douglas R. Clifford contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] Follow @ZackSampson.