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Residents Of Mexico Beach, Fla., Face Many Challenges In Hurricane Michael Recovery


Three days after Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle with 150-mph winds, residents are assessing the damage. And rescue crews are still going house by house in some of the worst-affected areas. The town of Mexico Beach is one focal point, with entire blocks flattened by wind and storm surge. NPR's Quil Lawrence was there today and sent this report.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The main roads into Mexico Beach are clear now, even if trees hang in the power lines and debris sometimes narrows them down to one lane. So people have been coming back to see what's left.

CYSTAL MCCLELLAN: We're actually - most of ours, the damage was on the bottom level. But most of everybody - the top floor we were able to salvage.

LAWRENCE: Crystal McClellan and her husband and son are here with a U-Haul trailer trying to save what they can from a beach rental. But their permanent home was also in the path of the storm.

MCCLELLAN: We live in Blountstown...

LAWRENCE: Oh, yeah. OK.

MCCLELLAN: ...Which is an hour from here. So we actually - this is where - we got hit twice.

LAWRENCE: That house will take a few months to repair, she thinks. But looking around Mexico Beach, on many streets, there's nothing left to fix. There used to be palm trees and three-story homes. Now some look like vacant lots - wooden houses flattened or picked up and moved into the road a block away. And it's still not clear how many people stayed through.

JOSEPH ZARALBN: Two thirty is the upper end of the number that we've received.

LAWRENCE: Fire Chief Joseph Zaralbn is leading a rescue team up from Miami. He got a list of residents who told the police they planned to stay.

ZARALBN: That's about an accurate number. The problem is you don't know from the time that they did that survey until storm landfall if other people ended up leaving because, as you saw, the storm ramped up so quickly. It wouldn't surprise us if a lot of people got scared and ended up evacuating.

LAWRENCE: His team spent the first day or two looking for survivors who needed help, combing through the town with rescue dogs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Just before that, there was a slab right there. That area right there, I got a really strong smell.

LAWRENCE: Now they're making a much more methodical search - house by house, room by room...


LAWRENCE: ...Looking for people who might not have survived, using a dog trained to find bodies. Even for the houses that fared well, the big question is when this town could be rebuilt.

BRIAN JOSEPH: (Unintelligible).

LAWRENCE: Brian Joseph invited me and NPR's Becky Sullivan into his wrecked living room. He and his wife have two kids - 6 and 10. Their books and toys and bikes are littered all around the house. They were finally settling down after he did 22 years in the Air Force, which took them all over, most recently to Japan. And they bought this house 11 months ago just across the road from the beach. It's new, built to the latest codes, with the main house high up on posts. The structure is good. But the wind pushed in his front door and then blew things out the back for a quarter mile. The surging water moved his car over to the next driveway. If he could fix it up right now, maybe they could save the house. But that's not going to happen.

JOSEPH: I just can't imagine anything's going to be actually rebuilding. And the - I mean, you can't get contractors. So I'm sure everyone's concerned even if they have a - partially usable (ph) houses. Is it going to get worse sitting for months and months in this condition?

LAWRENCE: Right now it's hard to see how this town can be resurrected. It looks like it could take years.

JOSEPH: We like - yeah, I mean, we liked it here. We want to. But I don't know. It's hard to tell. Seems like getting it back - I'd rather start from scratch. But who knows?

LAWRENCE: Joseph says if he's going to start again, he'd like to start sooner than that. Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Mexico Beach, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.