When the sun rose Wednesday, Mexico Beach was a sleepy town of 1,200 people on Florida's northern Gulf coast. By sundown, it was gone. The pictures show the heartbreaking devastation left by Hurricane Michael in the Florida Panhandle. Entire neighborhoods flattened. Boats flung into trees and trees flung into bathrooms. Homes piled against each other, on each other, in canals, across the highway, littering miles of broken road. The next time evacuation orders are issued before a hurricane, remember these pictures.
At least 11 people were killed in Florida and elsewhere after Michael, the third-most powerful storm to hit the American mainland in recorded history, blasted ashore Wednesday near Mexico Beach before racing up the southeast U.S. Its speed and ferocity was stunning, a deadly combination of unseasonably warm Gulf waters and a western cold front that strengthened and accelerated Michael as its 155 miles per hour winds and 14-storm surge hit the coast.
Panama City - the biggest city between Pensacola and Tallahassee - was left in ruins. "Like the whole city is gone," is how 28-year-old resident Deborah Adams described it. In Mexico Beach, which Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Brock Long called "ground zero" for Michael's onslaught, block after block after block was leveled, with entire neighborhoods reduced to their cement foundations. Rescuers are still searching for survivors, and as of Friday, nearly 1.5 million residents and businesses in the southeast were still without power, including nearly 300,000 in Florida. The recovery will be long, painful and costly. Many throughout the Panhandle had little before Michael hit. How will they begin to start over?
The pictures tell the story of why Gov. Rick Scott and emergency managers pleaded with residents in Michael's path to evacuate. Not only was the storm lining up to pack a punch, but there was little time to prepare. Michael coalesced in only half a week, strengthening as it zoomed north through the Gulf of Mexico. Too many residents ignored evacuation orders; some had little means to pick up and run while others hunkered down for who knows why. Forecasters were right about the path and the damaging impacts the punishing winds would have across a wide swath of the state.
There can be no more excuses: When officials say leave, leave. Have a plan, supplies and a bag ready throughout the busiest part of hurricane season. Michael proved again that hurricanes are unsparing forces of nature. A warming climate also means that Floridians and their leaders need to get more serious about dealing with the threat from rising seas, more extreme weather and other impacts of climate change. Living in Florida comes with responsibility. As the breadth of this catastrophe becomes clearer, empathy Floridians always have shown for their fellow residents will shine through. It could always as easily be us.