'It was life or death': Face to face with Michael's fury
Residents tell of frantic escapes from hurricane as toll rises to 18
MEXICO BEACH, Florida－Tom Garcia watched in terror as fingers of water pushed inland across the beach and began filling up his home.
His wife handed him a drill and Garcia used screws to pin his front and back door shut. But soon the storm surge from Hurricane Michael was up to his chest. His dogs sat on his bed as it floated. He said it took all of his strength to hold his sliding door shut as the waters outside the glass rose higher than those flooding the house.
"It was life or death," Garcia said through tears on Friday as he walked amid the destruction in Mexico Beach.
Michael was one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever make landfall in the United States, and this Gulf Coast community of about 1,000 people was in its bull's-eye on Wednesday. While most residents fled ahead of the storm's arrival, others stayed to face the hurricane.
They barely escaped as homes were smashed from their foundations, neighborhoods got submerged, and broken boards, sheet metal and other debris flew through the air.
Hector Morales, a 57-year-old restaurant cook, never even thought about evacuating. He grew up in Puerto Rico, where he said "you learn how to survive a storm".
His mobile home isn't on the beach. But the canal lined with boat docks behind his home quickly overflowed as the hurricane came inland. Soon, Morales said, his mobile home started floating.
"The water kept coming so fast, it started coming in from everywhere," he said as he sat outside on a broken set of stairs lying atop a mattress and other storm debris. "I had about 3 feet of water in my house. That's when I decided to jump."
He and two neighbors ended up spending six hours hunkered in a fishing boat that had been tied to a palm tree and climbed inside.
"I lost everything－my clothes, wallet, credit cards," he said. "But I made it."
Bill Shockey, 86, refused when his daughter pleaded with him to leave Mexico Beach. He said he didn't want to leave behind his collection of Gone with the Wind dishes and antique dolls. So he stashed those valuables up high in a closet before heading to his daughter's newly built two-story home next door.
With a pocket full of cigars and his cat named Andy, Shockey watched the hurricane roll in from an upstairs bedroom. The wind shredded the roof of his single-story home. Water rose nearly to the top of his garage door. A neighbor's home across the street got shoved off its foundation.
Was he scared? "Worried, I think, is more like it," Shockey said.
The death toll of the storm reached at least 18 on Saturday night and is expected to rise, as hope of finding more people alive fades, US officials said.
"We're going into recovery mode, unfortunately," said Fire Chief Alex Baird of Panama City, one of the coastal Florida communities clobbered by the hurricane.
"At sunrise, we'll start again on our search," Baird said. "We hope that we'll find more (survivors), but it's more and more doubtful."
President Donald Trump is expected to visit both Florida and Georgia early this week to inspect the damage, and the White House said late on Saturday the president was fully committed to helping state and local agencies with the recovery.