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Michael: Search, Cleanup Underway

Jennie McKeon, WUWF Public Media

Hurricane Michael's footprint on the Florida Panhandle came into focus Thursday, as teams enter stricken areas to search for hundreds of people who may have tried to ride out the storm.  

Gov. Rick Scott toured the area by helicopter on Thursday, flying over Bristol, Chipley, St. George Island, Mexico Beach, Panama City, and Panama City Beach.

“What you see in Chipley and Bristol, it sort of looked like there was [sic] tornadoes,” the Governor said. “You would see spots where everything was down.”

Michael and its 155 mph winds made landfall at Mexico Beach, which the Governor describes as the “worst hit.”

“It’s like my grandkids; when they get finished with something, it’s all over the place and there’s no order to it – and that’s what that was like,” said Scott. “And there’s a lot of – just stuff – everywhere. You saw some bad stuff like in Panama City Beach, and you saw some on St. George Island. But Mexico Beach was the worst.”

State officials count 285 people in Mexico Beach who defied a mandatory evacuation order ahead of Michael. More than 375,000 along the Gulf Coast were ordered or urged to clear out, but many ignored the calls. Scott says those who did leave are now finding it difficult to return home and inspect the damage.

“Not all of the roads are open yet; I think what you’re going to see is if you look at that part of the state there’s also little pockets of homes, like 12 homes. That’s going to be hard to get back to,” said Scott. “But if you look at where we flew over – St. George, Mexico Beach – it looked like people were getting back.” 

Credit Jennie McKeon, WUWF Public Media
Motorists duck under fallen limbs in Panama City after Hurricane Michael.

WUWF’s Jennie McKeon toured the damage in Panama City on Thursday, speaking to a number of residents. One is Carmen Willis -- a native of Cincinnati and a nine-year resident of Panama City. Willis’ apartment sustained water damage, but fared better than her mother’s house in Parker, where she rode out the storm.

“And it is really destroyed,” said Willis. “Two trees fell on the other side of her house; she had her kitchen wall fall in, and the kids’ bedroom. But it was very scary; I’ve never been through a hurricane.”

Also sheltering in place was another Panama City resident, Linora Hinman. For Michael, she and her family tried to draw on past experiences.

“We’d gone through so many hurricane before, we’re like, ‘well, yeah, we’ll be fine,’” said Hinman. “Then that’s when it really started hitting Cat-3 and Cat-4. By that point, it was more dangerous to be on the roads than it was to just stay put. So that’s what we did – we hunkered down in a hallway and just rode it out.”

“I feel sorry for all the people, I really do; actually as soon as we unpack we’re going to go out [and] try to help somebody – see if we could help anybody,” said Tom Koranda. He and his wife evacuated to Mobile, six weeks after he underwent open-heart surgery. When they returned to Panama City, the Indiana natives found only light damage to their mobile home.

Credit Jennie McKeon, WUWF Public Media
Many uprooted trees and destroyed buildings line main highway in Panama City.

“We had tears coming off of [U.S. Highway] 98 when we saw our house, knowing we’re alright,” said Koranda. “We just moved here. We closed on this place the 26th of January; so we’re new to Panama City. We retired down here.”

“Down in Mexico Beach -- because of the problems with transportation because of damage to roadways – it’s taking crews longer to get down into those areas,” said Tom Flanagan at Florida Public Radio.

“On St. George Island there were as many as maybe 50-plus families that decided to weather the storm there,” Flanagan said. “And parts of St. George Island that were totally inundated by that storm surge. We’re waiting to hear what their fate was, too.”

Meanwhile, work continues to restore electricity to the area. Gulf Power has estimated that it could take weeks to rebuild its infrastructure in the hardest-hit areas, such as Panama City.