Following an intensification over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Michael left coastal towns in a state of complete obliteration. Now ranked as one of the four most powerful hurricanes to ever hit the United States, Michael tore through the Florida Panhandle last Wednesday, October 10, with sustained wind speeds of up to 155 miles per hour. Paired with heavy rain, this resulted in peak storm surge of 9 to 14 feet, which wrenched walls off houses and completely inundated coastal areas.
Michael began as a tropical depression in the western Caribbean Sea before intensifying to a Category 1 hurricane off the coast of Cuba. From there, it veered northward where it gained momentum and power. Shortly before making landfall in Florida it was elevated to a Category 4, with wind speeds just one mile an hour slower than what constitutes a Category 5. Mandatory evacuations were put in place across the Panhandle, and storm shelters were opened to house the evacuees.
Despite meteorological warnings of its catastrophic potential, its true magnitude still came as a surprise to residents. Those returning to their affected communities often found little left untouched by Michael’s power.
“This is total devastation,” Patricia Mulligan, a resident of Mexico Beach – a community of 1,200 people about 20 miles east of Panama Beach City – told CNN. “We didn’t think it was going to be this bad.”
Mexico Beach has been dubbed “ground-zero” by officials for the amount of damage incurred from the hurricane. The town was left akin to an apocalyptic disaster zone, razed to the ground and left full of rubble and standing sea water. Through the weekend access to Mexico Beach was still hindered by damage to the major roadway, and officials urged residents not to return until the damage was thoroughly surveyed.
“There’s no infrastructure there to support you, and quite honestly it’s a dangerous area to go back into,” FEMA Administrator Brock Long expressed during a press conference. “When you have this type of destruction, there’s gas lines that are there, there’s power lines that are down. In doing so, you’re putting your life in danger, and we ask you to be patient.”
After wreaking further destruction in Georgia and the Carolinas, Michael moved off land and was downgraded to a post-tropical depression on Thursday. Insured damage totals are currently being estimated at $8 billion. As of Monday morning, the death toll stood at 18 people, but is expected to rise as search and rescue teams continue their efforts.
For many, recovery is a long, tedious, and looming process. Crews have begun work on clearing trees and debris from major roads in order to allow utility crews to restore power and communications lines.
Jinks Middle School in Panama Beach, which welcomed displaced Puerto Rican students following Hurricane Maria last year, was severely damaged by Hurricane Michael.
“Resiliency is important, and it’s an important life message that we all have to learn,” Brett Smith, principal of the school, told CNN. “But at this point, there’s really no making sense. It’s just how do we get together, how do we recover?”
Sources and Further Reading:
Florida’s Panhandle coast devastated by historic Hurricane Michael – Washington Post
Michael’s death toll jumps; utter devastation in Panhandle — live updates – CBS News
‘It’s a miracle you and I are alive’: Mexico Beach, Fla., residents search what’s left after Hurricane Michael – Los Angeles Times
Hurricane Michael’s Deadly Strike Leaves Florida Panhandle Reeling – New York Times