People watch Hurricane Michael from a hotel window in Panama City Beach
By Devika Krishna Kumar
PANACEA, Fla. (Reuters) - For Mary Grasberger, even the threat of the worst storm to hit the Florida Panhandle in recorded history could not persuade her to leave her pets and evacuate the Lighthouse Motel, her home in the beach town of Panacea for the last four years.
“We have nowhere to go," said Grasberger, 50, who lives in the motel with her 30-year-old daughter, Brenda, and their dogs and cats. "We have animals so we’re not leaving without them."
The motel where they live with the help of government assistance is about 70 miles east of Mexico Beach, where Hurricane Michael crashed into the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday with 155 miles per hour (249 kph) winds and the potential for a devastating storm surge.
The tempest was expected to be the worst hurricane ever recorded in Florida.
About two hours before it made landfall, Wakulla County sheriff's deputies arrived at the 26-room Lighthouse and urged the residents, most of whom depend on disability checks and social welfare, to flee.
“You’ll be dead. You really need to leave,” one officer told residents, many of whom had no intention of obeying what authorities termed a "mandatory" evacuation order ahead of what officials are describing as a "monstrous" storm.
“We’re leaving in 10 minutes so you need to get out."
The deputies asked why residents had not heeded earlier warnings and taken a bus that they said came around on Tuesday to give them a ride to safety.
Residents said they knew nothing about a bus. By Wednesday, with the storm just hours away, there was no transportation available. Frustrated, the deputies said they would try to arrange for a van as landfall approached.
Like Grasberger, Rachel Ellison, 52, has lived at the motel for about six years and planned to stay put even if there was a way out. She said she had weathered other storms and could ride this one out, too.
“I’ve been through this before," she said. “I have water and everything I need.”
Ellison said that based on past hurricanes she did not expect Michael to present any real danger despite the warnings.
“It never got bad during previous storms," she said. "The water never comes up. I mean I’m not worried about it 'cause it don’t ever come up this high.”
The modest motel, a one-story beige structure that forms a rectangle, stands only about 200 yards from Dickerson Bay, an arm of the Gulf of Mexico, about 30 miles south of the state capital, Tallahassee.
Next door is the Panacea Mission Outreach Center, painted bright pink and adorned with painted palm trees.
Lenore Adams, 59, who has lived at Lighthouse for seven years, was one of the residents who heeded the officers’ advice. She packed her belongings and got into a friend's pickup truck with her 17-year-old dog.
“He’s been through a lot of storms,” said Adams, before driving off.
(Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar; Writing By Frank McGurty; Editing by Toni Reinhold)