Mexico Beach residents band together after Hurricane Michael
Neighbors help each other survive after the Category 4 storm destroys their town.
MEXICO BEACH — Robert Baker Jr. shoved his paralyzed father onto a queen-sized mattress as water rushed into his childhood home.
He floated to the ceiling, with his mother and wife, until their faces were the only parts of them above the water. The surge was dark and salty, with whitecaps breaking as it tore through the neighborhood carrying almost everything it hit — furniture, picture frames, pieces of glass and thick clumps of sea grass from the Gulf of Mexico.
Baker snatched a broken door and stretched his father across it, pushing him to the sunroom at the back of the house, nearly 1,000 feet from the coast.
His wife, Michelle, went ahead of them, grabbing a hot tub bobbing in the surf. They lifted his father to the tub and shoved the family’s two dogs, Buddy and Bear, onto the hard red cover. Baker’s mother tugged at wires wrapped around her neck, threatening to drag her under.
An RV blew across the lawn, smashing the trees outside — pop, pop, pop — before it landed against another house. A center console boat, still on its trailer, had already hit the side of the home, blasting out the windows that faced south to the El Governor Motel.
The family doesn’t go to church much anymore, but Baker watched as his father raised his arms to the ceiling and began to recite Bible verses.
In an hour, maybe two — Baker only knows it was still daylight — the water dropped. When it was low enough, he grabbed a wheelchair, sat his father down, and with the help of a neighbor, scampered to his home a block up the road.
The flood there was only ankle-deep, and their beds were miraculously still dry. They had some medication, but Baker’s father, Robert Sr., is 82, paralyzed from the waist down, with stents in his heart and a wound-vac from a recent infection. His mother, Beatrice, is 76 with a pacemaker.
They needed to get medical help. Fast.
Hurricane Michael’s tail was still over Mexico Beach, toppling the town’s water tower and turning their toilets into geysers that spewed raw sewage.
Two rescue crews with the Federal Emergency Management Agency showed up the next afternoon, Baker remembers. They said they would come back but didn’t. A search team from Louisiana stopped by just before dark. They didn’t know where to find shelter or a hospital for Baker’s parents.
The family bunkered down in the wreckage for a second night.
On Friday, Baker walked up U.S. 98 by the destroyed Mexico Beach Pier, hoping to find federal emergency management officials. They had left overnight, he learned, and would return later.
Instead, Baker was greeted by Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey, whom he had known most of his life. Cathey flagged down a firefighter, who walked with Baker and got an ambulance, bringing an end to the ordeal.
"I can close my eyes and still see the water going by ... white waves, black water," said Baker, 51. "We lost everything, but not our lives."
As to who helped him, he has a quick answer: "Locals, locals, locals."
The governor visited, and state and federal resources are pouring in, but in a small town that swells with tourists each year and is now swollen with out-of-town relief workers, it’s the longtime residents — no more than 1,200 — who are banding together to survive.
The first people the Bakers saw when they made their escape were Julie Gardner and her husband, Todd, who helped carry Robert Sr. up the road.
Gardner offered them food and clothing. She had emerged from her own house Wednesday after the worst of the storm to find a fractured city.
"Pretty much just like the apocalypse had happened," she said.
That evening, no one was there to help but the people who’d stayed.
"It was just us," she said. "The first day, there was no law, there was no city, there was nobody."
Across the street, the water tower had fallen like a tree, sounding like a bomb, nearly missing the new City Hall building — a one-story with a metal roof. A surfboard lay overturned in the handicapped parking space outside, poking out of a pile of wood.
The storm shocked the dozens of residents who did not evacuate, bringing the Gulf further inland than they could ever imagine.
"Nobody thought it would get back this far," Gardner said. The water had risen to the tops of the tires on her car, several hundred yards from shore. She and Todd painted a message on a piece of plywood in their front yard, and another on their roof, in plain white. "We are okay," it said, "(2)."
Soaked photo albums were scattered across a table on the lawn Friday, drying under a bright fall sun after Gardner salvaged them from a friend’s flooded house on a canal. She had stowed three other friend’s memory books and some urns — "just whatever they knew wouldn’t be there."
Gardner is a real estate agent and knows her business is about to change — for years. "I think there’s going to be a lot of land for sale," she said.
But she hopes the people will remain.
"They call this the Mayberry on the coast," Gardner said.
The aftermath of Hurricane Michael showed that.
"A lot of people who stayed all knew each other. That was the good part," Gardner said. "I hope it keeps the small-town feel. I hope we keep our little Mayberry."
Jason is the firefighter who helped Baker. He does not want to give out his last name and cuts a stock photo version of his profession — thin, wearing all blue, close-cropped hair, a baseball cap and shiny sunglasses. He does not think he did anything worthy of being in the newspaper. The town professionalized its department in the last year, moving from a volunteer force, and most of the workers are new.
Baker said Jason was just who his father, an Air Force veteran, needed. He checked Robert Sr.’s pulse and vital signs. Jason asked who the president was, and who Robert Sr. was. Then the firefighter left. An hour later, an ambulance arrived.
Interim Fire Chief Donald Walker said as of Friday morning his department had not found anyone dead after the storm. But they had just six full-timers, only three of whom could reach the beach. An out-of-town rescue team later said they found a man dead under the rubble.
Walker talked to the city clerk, he said, and estimated 5 percent of buildings were habitable.
"Half the properties don’t exist anymore," Walker said. He worked for years in the Caribbean and remembers Irene and later the eye of Sandy. Nothing compared to Michael.
"Unless you went through Katrina, or something like that," he said, "you’ve never seen something like this."
None of the overhead images the chief had found, the drone shots and helicopter footage of flattened homes ricocheting across the world, captured the feeling of being on the ground.
"It’s devastation at its highest point," Walker said.
He had heard of a big yellow house on the water where seven children and two adults rode out the storm. A whisper away from nine tragic deaths.
"The house is still standing," he said. "Everything else is obliterated."
The trouble with search and rescue, according to the fire chief, is that it’s easy to knock on a door. But bodies are found under wreckage.
"We haven’t checked all of the piles. For that you need a dog," he said. "I’m just kind of numb. I just want to try to get it all done."
Almost all information in the area where Hurricane Michael hit travels by word of mouth.
Residents see the local firefighters in navy shirts, "MEXICO BEACH FIRE RESCUE" in big letters on the back, and they stop them often.
One asks about Agnes on 38th Street. The fire chief says she was airlifted out for medical assistance after the storm.
"You know where Alli is, my daddy?" a man in a truck asks.
"No," Walker replies.
"You’ve seen him?"
"I’ve seen him."
The story of Baker’s father is the same way.
Charles Smith, the owner of a local motel, was walking on U.S. 98 when the ambulance turned down the road to pick up the ailing man. What’s happening? Well, he said, they’re trying to get Bobby Baker’s dad.
After the rescue, Baker stopped to talk to Butch Alley, 64, another man he’d known most of his life.
Alley had a camera, and he’d taken pictures of some of the ruined homes. "That’s Chuck and Betty’s," he said, turning the screen to Baker. The couple owns rental properties, he said, and all their keys were scattered in the grass. Two other friends had asked him to call after he checked their home, but he couldn’t get cell service. "There’s nothing to call them about," Alley said. Their house was gone.
A CNN reporter let him use a satellite phone in exchange for taking video of him talking. He called his daughter and told her not to come back.
Seeing the destruction, Alley couldn’t help but think of all the town cared about before. Residents had been arguing over where to put their trash because black bears had gotten into some properties.
"It’s trivial," he said. "We were fussing about whether the garbage should be at the front or the back of the house."
Amid the panoramic destruction, there were many signs of Hurricane Michael’s arbitrary power. Jars of pickles and jars of salsa, unopened and unbroken. Paint cans with the lids secure. Houses upright next to houses reduced to slabs, with tile flooring intact. Cars on their wheels and cars on their roofs. An unchipped coffee mug on a bed of rocks.
And in one place, an untattered American flag. Someone had anchored it with sandbags across a small stretch of fence, still standing in a valley of broken homes.
"Mother Nature just takes what it wants to take," Baker said.
Here’s what it took from Baker:
Two Honda Accords. Two Harley Davidsons. A Ford Expedition. All new. A handicap van blown to the other side of the road from his parents’ house. His cell phone and his wife’s.
"Mine got blown out of my hand as I was speaking," said Michelle Baker, 43. She was trying to talk to her mother as the water came in.
Her wallet was missing, too, but he found his. His parents’ hardwoods were gone, ripped up by the flood and floated away — to where, they don’t know.
In the surge, Michelle Baker managed to snag her wedding ring and her grandmother’s ring, too.
In the childhood home, Baker recovered pieces of his family’s history. Thick photo albums on a tipped-over credenza, dripping floodwater. A family portrait of Baker, his brother, and two sisters as children — made in Korea when his father was in the Air Force — their faces peeking out over the destroyed living room through the exposed beams of a bedroom wall.
A George Strait Christmas casette on the floor. Photos of his nieces and nephews, somehow still in unshattered glass frames on the fireplace. A box of butter next to a wrapped block of cheddar cheese on the kitchen floor. Many things Baker didn’t recognize, parts of other lives blended with his own.
Michelle Baker is an elementary school teacher and Robert Baker Jr. drives delivery trucks. Their home is wet, but they have insurance. Michelle Baker said all the houses around them deep in the subdivision had more water; but theirs used to belong to Baker’s grandmother, and Michelle is convinced "she was watching over."
They might retreat to a lake house, in Marianna, but Hurricane Michael ripped through there, too, and they don’t know the state of it.
When they decided to stay, the storm was not the titanic force it became. "It started as a 2, then it was a 3, last I heard on the radio it was a 4," Robert Baker Jr. said. His family had made it through Hurricane Opal, in 1995, but Michael almost ruined them.
Mexico Beach is destroyed, but the residents along with the tiny local fire department managed to get Robert Baker Sr. and Beatrice Baker out of the disaster zone.
"We’re family. We’re all family," Michelle Baker said. But she did not pause long when asked if she wanted to stay:
"I plan on moving."
This article was originally published in the Tampa Bay Times on Oct. 13, 2018.