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A fallen street sign blown over by high winds reads Mercedes Ave.
Information icon Hurricane Michael bent the sign for Mercedes Ave. in half. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

The Battle for Mercedes Avenue

Service helps a community hit hard by Hurricane Michael

Panama City, Florida — The battle for Mercedes Avenue was joined.

On one side stood an army of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sawyers, swampers and heavy-equipment operators. On the other, a seemingly impenetrable forest of hurricane-downed pines and oaks blocking the street and keeping locals, utilities and ambulances from getting through.

A sawyer and heavy machine operator get to work on a fallen tree
The Service’s sawyers readying to attack a tree. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

Hurricane Michael had ripped across the Panhandle destroying houses, businesses and this city’s once-lovely tree canopy with equally reckless abandon. Toppled trees in the historic Cove neighborhood punctured roofs, flattened cars and sundered power lines. Virtually every road was, at one time, impassable.

The Service aimed to clear – house by house, block by block, street by street — the Cove of road-blocking limbs and trunks starting with Mercedes Avenue. Teams of workers from refuges all over the Southeast had spent Friday ensuring that local Service employees, volunteers and retirees, and their homes, were OK. Their focus then turned to the greater community’s needs. And that meant attacking the battalion of trees.

A man cuts a fallen tree from around a crushed car
Robert Alonso, a sawyer at Merritt Island NWR, clears Mercedes Ave. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

Hurricane Michael and his 155 mph winds denuded virtually every tree from St. Andrew Bay east to Apalachicola. He also killed at least 18 people — nine in Florida, the rest in Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia.

A residential street with heavy damage and a tall tree snapped in half
Mercedes Avenue, Panama City, Florida. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

The damage in this sprawling coastal community better known for beach-y bacchanal is mind-blowing. Light poles snapped like twigs ensuring no power for many for weeks. Long lines of dazed, tired and increasingly desperate hurricane refugees wrapped around Salvation Army, church, restaurant and pop-up food trailers. National Guard troops manned street corners. Hospitals evacuated. And thousands of low-slung buildings were reduced to rubble. In addition to the hazards of working in a war-like zone, the Service’s woodsmen faced additional challenges upon entering the Cove.

“The mission is to open access for that whole area,” David McCaghren, a regional safety instructor out of Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, told his troops before marching on Mercedes Avenue. “We’ll open the roads. We won’t cut trees in peoples’ yards. You can get mission creep severely from the get-go.”

They first encountered the Rev. Steve Rascoe, pastor of the heavily damaged First United Methodist Church, at the foot of The Cove. Roof sections were gone. Windows were obliterated. The Boy Scout trailer was tossed across the street and looted. The sanctuary took a direct hit. The Sunday service, heavy on patience, a brighter tomorrow and God by their side, was held in the gymnasium.

Only the facade of a building remains
A church office in The Cove historic district without a roof. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

“If the people that stayed don’t get closer to Christ, nothing will help ‘em,” Rev. Rascoe said, laughing. “The hurricane was shaking houses. Roofs were popping off. A lot of people called for God to bless them. It’s an acknowledgement that He did because they’re still up and walking around.”

He added to the Service crew: “I just want to say thank you to you guys. Thank y’all.” Charles Thayer, pulling a wagon with orange and blue buckets, beseeched the Service personnel for help. His neighbor’s trees crushed his small house, yet Thayer needed water to flush a toilet. A path to Watson Bayou was blocked by tree limbs. Chainsaws and a backhoe made quick work of the trees.

A man pulls a wheelbarrow down a path with lots of debris on the side of the path
Charles Thayer wheels away his bucket of water after Service sawyers cleared a path to lagoon. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

“They’re sensitive to people that need toilet water,” Thayer said as he and the wagon headed home. “They’re focused on everything they’re supposed to be doing. That’s very cool.”

The sawyers soon came across a woman near tears. An American flag hung off the porch. A sign taped to her pickup read, “Looters will be shot.” She asked if a tree leaning on her house could be removed. Not our mission, the sawyers said, sorry. She understood. They gave her a case of water and a box of MREs, the U.S. Army’s acronym for meals, ready-to-eat.

“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for everything you do.”

On up the road the woodsmen went, cutting trees, pushing them aside, clearing Mercedes Avenue. A gigantic pine lay atop Sandra Smith’s house; the troops were busy with another in the street. Smith and her four cats hid out in the backyard bunker as the hurricane winds howled and the trees flew.

Two men get to work with chainsaws on a fallen tree
Chris Lewzader, from Wheeler NWR, and David Moran, from Merritt Island NWR, share sawyer strategy. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

“I love to see these guys with chainsaws. They get things done,” she said while hanging wet linen on bushes to dry. “So many people just stand around looking and talking. But if you hear chainsaws you know things are getting better.”

The hardwood live oaks proved a particularly tenacious foe. One lay across Mercedes at a 45 degree angle and knocked all the fruit off a lime tree. The sawyers huddled, tactically planning their assault. Like pool sharks, they played the angles, assessing which way a limb might fall. And with every tree tangled with another or a power line, the sawyers had to anticipate the cascading impact of each cut limb.

Two men in safety vests look at a road covered in fallen trees
Planning the next assault. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

Safety, of course, was paramount. Trim the branches first, from tip to trunk, to ease the weight and tension of each tree. Clear out the underbrush for better purchase. Axes and wedges create a groove wide enough to keep Stihl saws from getting pinched in a tree. And then bring in the heavy artillery — the backhoe — to push the trunk off the road.

A gas canister, hand held axe, a pair of gloves and two bottles of water
Tools of the sawyer trade. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

“You’ve got to be careful releasing the tension so the tree doesn’t snap at you,” said Robert Alonso, a sawyer from Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s Atlantic coast. “I’ve seen guys take a tree before. It comes right at you.”

Alonso and his comrades punched through the last oak and pine by 1 p.m. They had taken Mercedes Avenue.

“I wouldn’t call it a victory,” said McCaghren. “I’d call it an accomplishment.” They returned to the Cove on Sunday. The battle was won, but the war wasn’t over.

Contact

Dan Chapman, Public Affairs Specialist
daniel_chapman@fws.gov, (404) 679-4028

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