DRY CREEK, Fla.- Up a red dirt road in the center of the Florida Panhandle, past fields of ripening cotton, the piney woods looks like pick-up sticks. Some trees are bent like praying mantises, and the few power poles still standing lean at precarious angles, their wires doing loop-the-loops around outstretched limbs.
Until Saturday, when neighbors broke through with chainsaws and an excavator, the Lipford home, sitting on 160 acres the family has owned since the Civil War, was cut off from civilization. The only way into the property was on an all-terrain vehicle crossing the waterlogged pastures and over bridges built of wooden pallets.
“We’re back to frontier days,” said Jean Lipford, 50. Since Hurricane Michael struck this town on Wednesday, she has been washing clothes in a bucket and bathing in the creek where her husband made a dam with small stones. Her daughter Whitney, 23, has been wielding a chainsaw, returning to the house every two hours to breastfeed her 6-week-old son.
“I want power and water. The rest of it we can deal with,” Lipford said.
After smashing Panama City and obliterating Mexico Beach, the eye of the storm swept north-northeast like a scythe, delivering misery to one of the poorest regions of Florida and neighboring Alabama and Georgia. A large percentage of people live in mobile homes and other vulnerable structures. The destruction extends far inland. Michael retained hurricane strength all the way through Georgia’s pecan groves and cotton fields.
More than 250,000 customers across Florida were still without power on Saturday. Sixteen shelters housed 1,800 people.
Search-and-rescue operations continue, not only in Mexico Beach, which was bulldozed by a storm surge that may have reached 14 feet, but also in the backcountry, where residents are fending for themselves and in some cases fearing they’ve been forgotten by the outside world.
Deborah Bayer rode out Hurricane Michael clutching her Bible in the bathroom of her mobile home in Lynn Haven, a small city just north of Panama Beach. The sky darkened, the power went out, the wind howled and she felt the whole structure shift on its foundation. A tree crashed onto the roof.
“It was a fun ride. I just sat there reading my Bible, had some candles on. I just hunker down waiting for it to pass over,” recalled Bayer, 47, who lives in a trailer park.
She and other residents had been told by elected officials to evacuate in advance of the hurricane. But how? To where? She’s a minimum-wage worker at a call center. She couldn’t afford a hotel room.
In Bristol, a tiny town in Florida’s smallest county, Liberty, where the biggest road has two lanes and half the land is in a national forest, Emergency Management Director Rhonda Lewis found herself cut off from the rest of the world. No power, no landlines or cellphone connections, no Internet. A satellite phone wouldn’t work. It kept saying “searching . . . searching . . . searching,” Lewis said.
Not until Thursday night did she manage to find a man with a ham radio in next-door Calhoun County and bring him back to Bristol, where she could send out calls for help.
“Rebuilding is going to be an issue. Because they are so poor. Many of the homes, they had no insurance,” Lewis said.
Lines have formed at the Ace Hardware store where people have been picking up emergency supplies. The Red Cross has arrived.
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On Friday, Tiffany Garling, executive director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce – where Dry Creek is located – got a full night’s sleep for the first time since Sunday, when she went to work in the county’s Emergency Operations Center. She doesn’t know how many people are still cut off in this largely rural county, where peanuts and cotton are the main agricultural commodities.
“I have no idea. That’s the scary thing. There is no way to estimate,” she said.
The process of clearing roads is laborious, with highways needing attention before the state roads, county roads or individual streets – many of which are blocked with giant oaks that require heavy equipment to move, not just a chainsaw.
Garling believes the county is 100 percent without power in residential areas.
“Our problems are different than the city,” she said. Without power, people can’t get water from their wells.
Hayes Baggett, the police chief in nearby Marianna, said that inland communities never get as much attention as the white-sand-beach towns. But people are pulling together, he said. There had been a few curfew violations and a little thievery, but no widespread looting.
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Families in Liberty and Jackson counties have been approved for individual assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to the governor’s office, and food and water is being airdropped into the hardest hit regions.
Similar stories played out in neighboring Georgia, where Becky Abshire, a lifelong resident of Albany, worried about how she’s going to raise her 10-year-old grandson, Ashton, on the $750 she gets from her disability benefits.
Abshire, 60, evacuated her three-room trailer, but returned to find that a tree had struck the bedroom she shares with Ashton.
“What I can’t afford to do, I hope my son will,” she said. But the son has a family of his own to support.
Rescue operations are underway far inland on dirt roads still blocked by downed trees. Teams that can’t reach rural residents by vehicle are having to go on foot, said Sean Collins, 47, a retired firefighter in Marianna.
“We don’t know if some of the elderly who live back in these woods, are they okay and have they been contacted,” he said.
Because Marianna is so far from the coast – nearer to Alabama than to Panama City – residents did not evacuate, he said.
“Nobody thought it was going to be this devastating,” Collins said.
Even in parts of Panama City, assistance seemed a long way off. A community with garden-style apartments, the Garden Dickinson Memorial Homes, known as the 11th Street projects, was unrecognizable after the storm. The parking lot was flooded. Several apartments were roofless; furniture was destroyed. Families slept on their cars and benches.
Across the way, a gas leak had residents worried about a possible explosion.
“This isn’t no laughing matter. Nobody came to assist us. No nothing,” said Samantha Gardner, 33. Her 6-year-old boy had two asthma attacks Wednesday night, she said, and calls to the police for help went unanswered.
“He needs a machine. We got no power. We don’t have no water. We don’t have no nothing,” she said.
Across town, Patty Butler, 52, cried as she walked her dog in her neighborhood. Their shopping center, home to a grocery outlet, print shop and a tamale shop, was destroyed. The roof gone. Windows shuttered, storefronts broken.
“It’s horrible,” she said. “They have the best tamales you will ever eat,” she said, looking at the destroyed building. Butler’s home was mostly spared, trees around it were all down and her boat flipped.
“We got a little hole in the roof and all of our fencing is gone, but we can live with that. Other people have lost everything, everything. I am so blessed. God is good, He was there with us the whole time.”
For this close-knit community, where neighbors went to check on other neighbors after the storm, those with service passed on their phones to others.
“It’s going to make us closer. A lot closer,” she said. “I really feel in my heart we are going to bounce back stronger than ever.”
Just how – and where – people will bounce back remains unclear.
Betty Davis, 80, who lives in the historical African-American community in Apalachicola known as the Hill, which dates to the 1830s, spent Friday afternoon pondering what had happened and what might come next.
“I laid on the floor, and I could hear this thing coming, and it sounded like two trains, on separate tracks,” Davis said.
Many local people in Apalachicola rely on strong family ties to help get through tough times, but the once bountiful oyster fishery has collapsed in recent years, adding to the pressures. Davis said she didn’t know how poorer people will cope in the aftermath of the storm.
But she does know one thing.
“If they see another one coming,” Davis said, “I’ll leave – if I have to walk. I’ll never do this again.”
This article was written by Patricia Sullivan, Luz Lazo, Frances Stead Sellers, and Joel Achenbach, reporters for The Washington Post.