Miles inland, rural counties still digging out after hurricane Michael

Despite being 70 miles from the coast, the town of Marianna, Fla., was hit hard by hurricane Michael: Trees and power lines were knocked down and entire homes destroyed. Amid the chaos, neighbors strive to meet needs and help each other recover. 

Brendan Farrington/AP
Cars sit in traffic outside buildings that lost their facades during hurricane Michael on Oct. 14, 2018, in Marianna, Fla. Neighbors are pitching in to help neighbors and many across rural communities are still waiting for power to be restored.

Haylie Byler and her husband were just beginning life in their new home when hurricane Michael's monstrous winds mowed down a dozen trees on their property, more an hour's drive inland from where the storm made landfall.

They had made only one house payment and no payments yet on his new truck when Michael slammed a tree onto the dwelling, another onto the truck and a third on their other car. For four days, Ms. Byler had to climb over huge pine tree trunks to get in and out of her home.

"I have cried two or three times a day," the elementary school teacher said as chain saws buzzed behind her, wielded by church volunteers from more than 50 miles away who arrived out of the blue to help.

While much of the world's attention has been focused on badly battered coastal communities like Mexico Beach and Panama City, Michael also devastated mostly rural areas all the way into Alabama and Georgia.

Marianna, in Jackson County, was hit with stronger winds than it has ever seen despite being about 70 miles north of Mexico Beach, where Michael came ashore.

Days after the storm, 268 people there were still in shelters, power was out throughout the county and cellphone service had only been restored within Marianna. Outlying areas have had no way to communicate. Emergency workers were still conducting search and rescue operations because many people were still stuck in their homes.

Similar destruction visited community after community in Florida, all the way from coastal Gulf County to the Alabama border, where seaside escapes give way to cotton fields, cattle, and timber.

Parks Camp, the science and operations officer at the National Weather Service Tallahassee office, said winds reached 102 miles per hour before its measuring devices failed in the middle of the storm. Wind speeds could have gone higher, he said.

Jackson County emergency management director Rodney Andreasen – whose own home was destroyed – said in his 21 years in the military and 18 years in his current position, he's never seen anything like this destruction.

Mr. Andreasen said the county's power grid was destroyed and it could be a month until it's restored, and the number of damaged and destroyed homes is too high to even estimate. One person died when a tree crushed him during the storm and the death toll could still rise, Andreasen said.

"Our house was destroyed. We're homeless right now," Andreasen said, as his wife Donna sat nearby. "We're victims."

Many in Florida's inland communities usually don't make the same preparations as people closer to the coast. Few evacuate, and the frantic run for food, water, and supplies also isn't as great.

Shauna Benefield and her boyfriend, Alex Edwards, live just north of Marianna's historic downtown in his family's home, and they didn't stock up. After the storm cleared, Mr. Edwards had to drive 50 miles to DeFuniak Springs for water, food, and gas. There was nowhere nearby to get any in the immediate aftermath.

Trees surrounding their home snapped in half, some landing on the roof and sending his family to the basement for shelter. They've cleared limbs from the roof, and replaced them with blue tarps. But they still have no water or electricity.

Still, they say there's been a strong neighbor-helping-neighbor response. They've given out water and bananas.

"It's not just about us, it's about everyone," said Mr. Edwards, shirtless with a tattoo on his chest that reads "Walk with God. Die when my time's up" as he helped clean the mess around the house.

That same spirit of generosity is evident across the ravaged region.

"We've got a lot of people who've lost their farms, their barns, their crops," said Jill Braxton of Vernon in Washington County, which is north of Panama City and west of Marianna.

She had a pickup truck full of hay to distribute to other horse owners.

"We've got no power and we had some downed trees but our house wasn't touched. We're good," she said. "We're just trying to help other people."

Byler said she's thankful for help from strangers who "just showed up at our doorstep and just started clearing things. I don't know what I would have done. It's a God thing. I don't know what you believe, but God has definitely shown up and showed out for us."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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