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‘Hurricanes don’t respect coastlines’: Michael’s strength reached even those inland

Marianna in Jackson County, which sits 50 miles from the coast, was still battered by powerful eyewall winds from the Category 4 storm.
Downtown Marianna after Hurricane Michael. (Miami Herald)
Downtown Marianna after Hurricane Michael. (Miami Herald)
Published Oct. 13, 2018

When Hurricane Michael began to strip the shingles from Rebecca Baldwin's roof, she rushed to put buckets under the leaks.

But when it shook the sides of her double-wide trailer so strongly she feared she'd die, Baldwin knelt in the hallway with her family and prayed.

They survived. But Michael, the most devastating hurricane to hit the Florida Panhandle in recorded history with 150-mph-plus winds, wiped almost everything else away, save her family and her faith.

"This has never happened up here," Baldwin, 47, said Friday morning, standing outside the church she, her husband and her dog Mini Pearl had evacuated to after the storm. "They kept saying it was going to go in and out quickly."

Hurricane Michael ravaged the coast where it roared ashore as a nearly Category 5 storm, flattening much of Mexico Beach under a wall of storm surge and pummeling Panama City to shreds. But its fierce winds also carved out a path of destruction far inland: like in Marianna, 50 miles from the coast.

In this small city of 9,000, Michael's eyewall winds scraped away awnings and smashed windows into jagged panes downtown, even knocking some storefronts into rubble. The storm ripped away the roof of the sheriff's office and strangled paneling from the emergency operations center into a pile of crunched metal.

Jackson County officials said Friday they had confirmed at least three storm-related deaths from falling trees, though a fourth was pending.

"All I know is nobody's ever seen anything like this before, not this far inland," said Jackson County emergency management director Rodney Andreasen. But "hurricanes don't respect coastlines."

Hurricane Michael is the kind of disaster a city like Marianna, closer to Alabama than to Panama City, might have never expected. It's the type of place where people might even evacuate to from the coast. It did not have a shelter open before Hurricane Michael, according to state data.

Instead, Michael's path, which curved slightly northeast, plowed through Marianna and several more of Florida's most rural communities after it hit the coastline. Jackson County, where Marianna is the county seat, is one of the largest dirt road counties in the state — and one of its poorest. According to U.S. Census data, median household income in Jackson is $35,470, compared with the state average of $48,900.

But as many have rushed to the beaches to deliver aid, some in Marianna fear being forgotten.

"I'm hearing on the radio about the coast, but nobody's talking about Marianna," said Mike Purvis, who was preparing Friday morning to examine just how badly the hurricane had damaged his home. The Publix meat manager had fled at the last minute Wednesday morning to Jacksonville and unsuccessfully attempted to return Thursday amid road closures blocking the path west.

State emergency officials noted repeatedly Thursday that inland communities like Marianna and Chattahoochee, on the other side of the storm's path, had also sustained major damage from Michael's unprecedented strength. Gov. Rick Scott surveyed the damage in Marianna Friday after visiting where the storm made landfall in Mexico Beach.

The sheer scope of wind damage meant state crews spent much of the day after the storm clearing away snapped trees on roads leading west. They reopened Interstate 10 late Thursday, though for several miles where the storm's eye had crossed over, the air still smelled like sawdust and pine needles.

It also took until Thursday evening for back roads to become passable to Chattahoochee, and for a handful of semi-trucks to wind past the debris-filled roads to deliver food and water to the town Friday morning.

On Highway 71 outside Marianna, cars lined up for over a mile to try and get ready-to-eat meals and water being distributed at the Walmart, after tractor-trailers with food and water arrived mid-morning. The lines were further snarled by traffic lights all over the city stuck on yellow, endlessly blinking "caution."

Just up the road, Baldwin and her husband surveyed one of the uprooted trees at Faith Baptist Church. After the storm, her husband Robert said, they had to dig their way out of the branches and debris that ringed what was left of their trailer.

Without water or power, they went to the church, where both of them work as caretakers and have attended services since they moved to North Florida 11 years ago. Baldwin also chose the weekly verse on a sign outside the slope-roofed building, though the wire frame had been twisted out of shape by Michael's winds.

They have begun eating the canned food the church usually distributes to homeless people, she said. Baldwin is also behind on her dialysis treatment, which she needs three times a week.

Though her husband and one of her sons tried to clear away some of the debris around their home, the place is unlivable, she said. "My mom told me to get ahold of FEMA, because we can't live in our home anymore."

Until then, she and her husband intend to stay at Faith Baptist until the power and cell towers flicker back on so they can get more help.

Baldwin said she had been flipping through the pages of her Bible for verses to display outside the church when things get better. Her favorite book is Isaiah, but her favorite verse is John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son."

"But I don't know what to say," she said. "They said Michael came, and he came to destroy. He did."


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