Mexico Beach: Ground zero for Hurricane Michael

Early morning photos from the epicenter of the Category 4 storm reveal devastation.

Hurricane Michael blew down the welcome sign for Mexico Beach. [Douglas R. Clifford | Florida Beach Insider]
Hurricane Michael blew down the welcome sign for Mexico Beach. [Douglas R. Clifford | Florida Beach Insider]

MEXICO BEACH — Fires burn with no one to put them out. Cars and trucks stacked like toys. Stairs lead to houses that no longer exist. Trees bent over, as if trying to run from something.

Hurricane Michael slammed into North Florida on Wednesday with historic fury. The Category 4 storm is the most powerful storm on record to strike the Panhandle, blasting it with storm surge up to 14 feet and 155-mph winds — just two miles shy of Category 5 strength.

A building in Mexico Beach was burning early Thursday morning, with no one there to put the blaze out. [Douglas R. Clifford | Florida Beach Insider photo]

This is what they saw:

Homes completely destroyed. Refrigerators and toilets where the storm left them.

Thousands of two-by-fours, chewed up and indecipherable. Refrigerators, toilets, staircases to nowhere and front doors 10 feet up with no way down.

Cars were piled against each other early Thursday morning in Mexico Beach after Hurricane Michael came ashore. [Douglas R. Clifford | Florida Beach Insider photo]

But one of the communities hit hardest was Mexico Beach, a town of about 1,100 near where the monster storm first made landfall.

The coastal village was struck by the notorious front right quadrant of the storm’s eye, and it showed.

The storm rendered the community near impassable. U.S. 98 was covered with shattered trees and debris. But a Tampa Bay Times reporter and photojournalist found a way into the devastated town in the early Thursday darkness.

A boarded-up business in Mexico Beach early Thursday after Hurricane Michael blew directly through town. [Douglas R. Clifford | Florida Beach Insider photo]

The neighborhoods along U.S. 98 looked like a child’s playroom after a massive tantrum. Homes looked like doll houses, one side exposed to the elements. Soggy piles of furniture were pushed against the back walls.

Some residents tried to ride the storm out. A woman and man were looking for help with their mother’s portable oxygen concentrator machine. A man shined a flashlight from a balcony. The town was rendered dark, save for the fires, and silent, save for sporadic alarms.

One building burned to the ground, no one there to fight the flames. From the road you could hear the sizzle of the wood, even over the waves crashing to shore across the street.

This article was originally published in the Tampa Bay Times on Oct. 11, 2018.

Sampson is a general assignment reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, and has written about everything from a police horse that paints to how county officials spend your tax dollars. He is from Rhode Island and will talk to you about it.