Linda Clarke gasped when she returned to what was once their stately beach house – before Hurricane Michael turned it into heaps of wood and metal.
“Oooooh wow, our new house,” she said, her voice shaking. Her husband, Raoul, walked past her.
“Raoul. It’s just stuff. It’s just stuff,” Clarke said repeatedly as she eyed the destruction around her. “It’s just stuff. We can replace.”
A few days ago, they were living in their dream home at Shell Point Beach. After Michael blew ashore Wednesday, the house lay in crumbled blocks, with the lower level filled with chunks of concrete and a lime green boat tossed near the stairs. What a 9-foot storm surge didn’t crash into, the 155-mph winds wiped out.
‘I just don’t know what to do’
Across the Florida Panhandle, shell-shocked residents returned home to devastation after Michael’s fury, with similar scenes played out in several neighborhoods.
Debra Murphy looked at the debris in her home in Shell Point Beach, where she raised her three daughters .
“I’m just still in shock. … I can’t think anymore because I just don’t know what to do,” she told CNN’s Gary Tuchman, breaking down in tears.
Michael careened across the Gulf of Mexico and made landfall Wednesday as a monster Category 4 storm, killing at least 13 people and swallowing towns and marinas in its path.
Victims included an 11-year-old girl killed in Seminole County, Georgia, when a metal carport crashed through a roof, hitting her head. One man, Steven Sweet, died when a tree fell on a home near Greensboro, Florida.
Michael lingered for two hours when it slammed into the Florida Panhandle, the strongest storm in the continental United States since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Meteorologists had warned for days that Michael was a beast. But its rapid intensification over the Gulf’s warm waters hours before landfall and its fury inland caught many by surprise, CNN meteorologist Robert Shackelford said.
‘At this point, there’s really no making sense’
In Panama City, home to about 38,000 people, Michael’s fury was evident, with trees snapped in half and roofs ripped off buildings.
David Sebastian rode out the storm and barely made it out alive.
The hurricane peeled off the roof of his townhouse and blew out the windows, sending water pouring in. With trees down, and power and cell service out, he could not safely evacuate. He spent the night with his roommate and five dogs, surrounded by water.
“We had to stay in the house in 2 inches of water,” he said Thursday.
Schools were not spared, either. Jinks Middle School had welcomed children displaced by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year. The Panama City school was torn apart by Michael, and Principal Britt Smith choked up as he looked at the decimated building.
“Resiliency is important, and it’s an important life message that we all have to learn,” Smith said. “But at this point, there’s really no making sense. It’s just how do we get together, how do we recover?”
Standing in what was once the parish hall of St. Dominic Catholic Church in Panama City, the Rev. Luke Farabaugh spoke of the importance of having gratitude amid the devastation.
“Things, we can replace,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of signs of hope. I’ve been telling people … to have hope.”
‘There’s nothing left here anymore’
What were once towns with white sandy beaches are deserted and strewn with debris.
In Mexico Beach, ground zero of the devastation, receding floodwaters revealed what looked like an apocalyptic mess.
Scott Boutwell tearfully described how his walls collapsed and someone else’s furniture swept into his house. The only thing that belonged to him in his home was a briefcase.
“I came here and walked inside … and there’s somebody’s else’s couch inside. It’s not even mine. That’s not even my recliner,” he told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin.
As Boutwell spoke, high-pitched fire alarms beeped continuously in the rubble – a constant reminder of warnings that came long after the danger hit.
“Our lives are gone here. All the stores, all the restaurants, everything,” he said. “There’s nothing left here anymore.”
Mexico Beach is cut off from the rest of the state, with roads blocked by debris and cell phone service mostly out. Neighbors struggled to find their homes on streets with piles of wood where houses once stood.
“I can’t describe it, It’s just terrible,” Sherri said about the unrecognizable street. “There are so many memories here.”
Another neighbor used Baldwin’s phone to call her daughter.
“Hallie, it’s mama, I’m OK, I’m OK,” she said. “It was a lot rougher than we thought, how are you guys? I love you, too.”
By Friday morning, cell service was slowly returning to the area.