'It's just devastation': Florida city begins cleaning up Michael's mess

Guardian Web |

There’s an unmistakable scent of barbecue and pine down Kelson Avenue in Marianna, Florida, and the faint hum and buzz of generators and chainsaws all around. On the corner, residents of an apartment complex have pooled the remaining meat in their fridge and freezers to cook.

“Your food is gonna go bad so we might as well cook it,” said Robert Hill. “Plus it brings you closer as a community.”

Marianna, the “city of southern charm”, saw Hurricane Michael ’s destructive eye wall pass directly overhead this week, lashing trees into kindling, tearing roofs and awnings, punching through signs and leaving the city’s power grid a matted mess of tangled cable.

“It’s like a bomb hit, everywhere you look it’s just devastation,” said Hill who, amid the muted celebratory feeling of the impromptu cookout, had an ominous warning. “Today is the best day we’re going to have. Tomorrow is going to be rough,” Hill said. “We just used the food that was in the freezer, so tomorrow it’s not gonna be there. The store’s not gonna be open and you won’t be able to get cash out the ATM neither.”

Not a single store appeared to be open in the city on Thursday, with the downtown corridor of Lafayette street utterly in taters. On one corner, a brick building housing an Edward Jones financial office had its bricks shredded by the Michael, in a heap on the pavement, with most of the second story obliterated. Multiple building faces had been ripped clear off, now resembling doll houses, and revealing floors bowed by Michael’s destructive power.

Down the road, the Jackson county courthouse was a tangled mess with overturned benches and flattened historical marker signs. To the left of the entrance, Michael managed to do something that more often happens via protest, civil disobedience or political pressure – it felled a memorial to Confederate soldiers, snapping it at its base.

Business owner Bugra Demirel recalls riding out the storm in his Brothers Beauty & Fashion store. “I have not been scared this much in my life. This building started shaking like this,” motioning his hands, “and the sound of the wind…” he shakes his head.

His newly built store was mostly unscathed but he watched as other businesses on the drag were decimated, like the piano tuning shop across the street. “We saw the roof literally get sucked up and it just flew away,” Demirel said.

“Corporate stores – they have contents insurance, building insurance … they’ll be fine, but these guys – mom and pop stores – I’m just thinking about all of them right now. Even us, tomorrow we have to start calling the banks, suppliers – they’re going to have to work with us.”

The main streets were cleared of debris first, but on Thursday residential neighborhoods remained largely impassable by car thanks to downed trees, or at least requiring a number of detours. Off Russ Street, the Bigale family let me accompany them to see their home for the first time since most of them evacuated to Birmingham, Alabama, on Wednesday morning. Allison and Bonnie Bigale almost simultaneously let out an “Oh my god” as they walked into their home and saw the missing piece of ceiling and the dried crusty deposits of drywall gypsum on the floor.

Allison Bigale’s husband Adam, a facilities manager at a nearby prison, had to work and was unable to evacuate. He had mostly cleaned up the damage by the time the rest of the family arrived. Bonnie sniffled as she walks into her room – a sloppy mess of ceiling chunks are scattered all over her bed.

“But you know what,” Adam said, “we’re all still here so it doesn’t matter. All this is replaceable.”

That’s a common attitude in Marianna. “To me, when I got to see that house and it’s still standing, and all our valuables – the things that cant be replaced – are still there, dude, I’m happy,” said Jeffrey Register. “I’ve lived here 46 years and I had no idea it could be this bad.”

Register said him and his family walked a couple miles Thursday morning “over, under and through trees – like a hike – just to make sure we still had a house.” His wife, Shalon, sells home insurance and said claims are already starting to trickle in. “It’s gonna be nonstop,” she said.

The White family will be some of the thousands of Marianna residents filing insurance claims in the coming days. A tree punched a basketball-sized hole in their roof, leaking water all over Larry White’s billiards table. “We spent most of [the storm] in the hallway. Never ever been through anything like that in my life,” said White’s wife, Princella.

They’ve been out since moving trees, raking and gathering up debris like much of their block down Cedar Street – at least from what can be seen on this side. Cedar is completely blocked off five houses down by a massive oak tree across the road.

Some friends and neighbors stop by and exchange tales of damage, and rumors about when the lights will come back on. Some have heard a week. Others have heard three to four weeks.

Behind their place at least 10 pines are splayed out over one another, some still on a neighbor’s roof. The storm flattened their lawnmower shed into a heap and flipped their grandson Kaeden’s swing set several times.

“There go the top of it right there,” he yells excitedly, pointing at a thick heap of downed pines. They stopped it from blowing all the way away.

“Never seen anything like this in my 23 years here,” White said. “They’ll be talking about this one in Marianna for years to come.”

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