MEXICO BEACH, Florida—“I called it my happy place,” Linda Jones says while sifting through the broken remnants of her home and her life after Hurricane Michael. “I just wish I had taken my photos and the quilts my mother made.”
What’s left of her home is the foundation, a concrete slab.
“My grandchildren have been crying. I have too,” she said Sunday.
There was an eerie silence as she looked around without really knowing what to look for in the mounds outside of what had been inside. A porcelain plate embedded deeply in wet sand, or under a heavy beam, a cup her neighbor gave her.
Once in a while, she had bursts of joy.
“Oh! There’s a Thanksgiving plate!” then “There are my pants!” as if to rekindle a momentary sense of home in the unbearable sense of loss.
The hurricane that made landfall here with 150 mph winds pulverized everything so finely that it’s impossible to distinguish where any streets are.
Occasionally, a piece of cardboard with a street name is seen on a “corner,” which is hard to make out to begin with. Everything is covered by debris, sand, broken trees, and most of all the flying parts the winds picked up and swirled elsewhere.
“This is 116 South 41st Street,” Jones said, pointing to nothing more than a sand rail.
A search-and-rescue team member came up to Jones and asked her if she knew certain names he had on his list. She didn’t but asked if he knew or had a Sheryl Williams on his list.
“I’m so worried, I haven’t heard from her. She lived on 37th Street, but moved to her sister’s on 15th Street to ride out the hurricane. I just am so worried about her.”
There were 10 other houses on South 41st, and each one had been blown off its foundation. Starting from the beach, the entire block, about 1,000 feet or more, had been reduced to one slab after another, with belongings and broken parts of walls, bathroom tiles, sinks, curtains, toys, and household items of all types scattered over the wet sand around each slab. This went on for block after block. What once was a normal community with streets had become a graveyard of homes that stretched for miles.
At least 17 are dead across the South, including a Mexico Beach resident who was found dead inside a home by a search team on Friday. The teams on Sunday began inspecting homes, sticking a green sign on homes they’ve finished.
Denise Padgett, a 49-year-old nurse at Bay Medical Hospital, was sitting inside her home on 15th Street after the team came.
“It says zero people living here,” she said, pointing at the green sticker. “In fact we are two people, myself and my fiancé, and we were taking a nap, when I guess they came by.”
As of late afternoon, the emergency mobile command chief, Miami Fire Department Chief Joseph Zahralban, confirmed that no new casualties had been found after searchers finished their rounds. Forty-six people have still not yet been accounted for of the 230 residents who remained during hurricane.
On the main road farther inland, a large food truck was handing out water, sodas, Angus hamburgers, and hot dogs, freshly grilled by four young teens. The family and the food truck arrived Saturday morning.
“During the storm in Georgia, we were sitting without electricity. Papa had a food truck and decided to take it down here,” Allison Knight, 36, said. She has vacationed here on the Emerald Coast all her life.
They were the only ones on the ground until a small Salvation Army food stand showed up Sunday afternoon. Knight said they brought not only food and water but also toiletries, pillows, and dog food. Their food truck was a rallying point all weekend, not just for the residents who were returning but for all the search-and-rescue teams that began to operate here on Sunday.
One rescuer who had been here from the start was Brittany Medina, a Mexico Beach police officer and fire rescue volunteer. “My house is a slab,” she said, overwhelmed with emotion. “I just grabbed my four kids and ran.”
Betsie Welle, 28, said she moved to a friend’s house when the intensity of the storm grew by the minute. “We were the first to assess the damage the next day,” she said. “There’s hardly anything left that’s habitable.”
A team from a power company working for the feds who asked not to be identified told The Daily Beast they were here to assess what would be needed to restore electricity: fixing electric poles, transformers, and strewn power lines that have become a signature of Michael’s merciless path through the Florida Panhandle.
The assessment was blunt.
“There’s no point in trying to turn on power here, not for many, many months,” one worker said.
The teams in Mexico Beach were the first official help to be seen down here in the hardest hit part of Florida in the four days since the hurricane struck. In nearby Panama City, residents fumed on Saturday at the lack of help from the state or federal government.
As Sunday went on, caravans of search-and-rescue teams arrived in droves, followed by utility repair trucks, debris-clearing equipment, firefighters from across the state, and members of the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. By early afternoon, the earlier silence that hung over Mexico Beach had turned into a cacophony of flashing vehicles moving at high speed, followed by 10-deep caravans of law enforcement vehicles streaming through town at alarming clips. The emergency command center had turned into a war zone-like command post.
Meanwhile, far from the mayhem, a few residents quietly trickled in to see what was left of their homes.
Russell King, an attorney from Tennessee, stood on the second floor of an intact, stately white residence, steaming with anger.
“Tell the world that this happened because of climate change, because of coal!”
King said he’d just received his certificate of occupancy in April and was going to stay.
“I built this to withstand everything,” he said looking at the beach, “but look at everyone else. They’ve lost everything, all their memories, all they had, they’re here, and now what for them?”
Asked how long it would take to rebuild Mexico Beach, King offered, “50 or more years, as long as it took to get to where it was before the hurricane hit.”
“Someone might just come and buy the whole place and set up condominiums and big hotels,” he added.
On top of the cost in human lives, many here fear Mexico Beach itself will be a casualty.