By Luz Lazo, Mark Berman, Emily Wax-Thibodeaux and Kevin Sullivan

The Washington Post

SPRINGFIELD, Fla. — Oceanfront communities in the Florida Panhandle were virtually obliterated, an Air Force base suffered “catastrophic” damage and at least six people were killed by Hurricane Michael, a sucker-punch of a storm that intensified suddenly and now ranks as one of the four most powerful hurricanes to strike the United States.

“This one just looks like a bomb dropped,” said Clyde Cain, who is with the Louisiana Cajun Navy, a group of volunteer search-and-rescue teams that went to Florida to help in Michael’s wake, just as they did last month during Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas.

Michael was downgraded to a tropical storm Thursday as it sped its way northeast through Georgia and the Carolinas on a path out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Its relatively short assault on Florida’s Gulf Coast was devastating.

Tiny Mexico Beach, Florida, a town of about 1,000 residents, appeared to be have been almost destroyed by Michael’s 155 mph impact — just 1 mph short of a Category 5 storm.

Aerial footage showed much of the seaside enclave reduced to kindling, trees sheared off just above the ground, tangles of power lines strewn in the streets and cars and boats piled up like rubbish. Blocks seemed empty, with houses smashed by storm surge and wind.

“This is not stuff that you just put back together overnight,” said William “Brock” Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Official states of emergency were declared in Alabama, Georgia and as far north as the Carolinas and Virginia, which are still reeling from the devastating floods of Florence.

Hundreds of thousands of people remained without power late Thursday across the Southeast, and some areas were essentially cut off more than 24 hours after Michael made landfall, with roads blocked by massive trees and cellphone service out.

Curtis Locus, a Florida Department of Transportation worker, said the damage he has seen across the Panhandle is unprecedented.

“This was a community in the middle of the forest. Now, the forest is gone, and so is the community,” Locus said. “It’s a beautiful place. This is Party Town, USA. Now it’s Devastated Town, USA. Everything along the coastline was devastated like a war zone.”

In Springfield and nearby Panama City, apartment buildings are roofless, gas station awnings are twisted beyond recognition, businesses collapsed, metal posts as thick as tree trucks folded in half, and billboards were blown onto homes or crushed cars.

“We didn’t figure it was going to be this bad,” said Mike Davis, 56, sitting on the sidewalk outside Oasis Liquor, a store on Panama City’s 15th Street, staring dully at the debris around him. “This is devastating.”

Davis lives two blocks away and rode out the storm with his family. He decided to stay because he didn’t think the storm would be very bad.

When he woke Tuesday and heard that Michael had intensified, it was too late to leave.

“They ain’t going to fix this overnight,” he said. “It’s going to take a long time.”

Michael was as powerful as it was unexpected, careening across the Gulf of Mexico and intensifying rapidly into a powerhouse.

The night before the hurricane hit, police told Georgia Wells, 35, that she and her family were in a safe zone in Springfield in a public housing complex. By Wednesday afternoon, shortly before landfall, it was clear they were in terrible danger.

Her six children, mother and brother gathered in smallest bedroom of their apartment. As the winds howled and shrieked — Wells said it sounded more like a tornado than a hurricane — the drywall began to tear apart, the roof started to collapse and water flooded in. They ran for cover in a bathroom. The apartment was destroyed.

“We all thought we were going to die; that’s how bad it was,” she said.

Wells, a single mother who works as a manager at a local McDonald’s, lost most of her belongings.

Families that live in the complex slept in cars and on benches Wednesday night and were planning to do the same Thursday.

“Everyone in this place has nowhere to go. We’re stuck,” Wells said. “We don’t have money to go anywhere.”

Panama City Beach, a resort area popular with retirees and spring-breakers, was nearly wiped away by the wind and walls of water, with guardrails and roofs twisted into ribbons. The storm toppled 30-ton train cars.

Michael pummeled Tyndall Air Force base, set directly on the shoreline between Panama City and Mexico Beach, causing “widespread roof damage to nearly every home and leaving the base closed until further notice,” officials said.

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