OKALOOSA ISLAND — Hurricane Michael largely spared Okaloosa, Walton and Santa Rosa counties when it blew ashore mid-day Wednesday.
The Category 4 storm toppled some trees, kicked up the surf and blew yard debris and litter onto roads, but saved its worst for North Florida communities to the east.
The area from Panama City Beach east to Apalachicola sustained extreme damage, with widespread flooding, power outages and reports of buildings being leveled. At least one person was reported dead and one person who rode out the storm said it looked like an atomic bomb had gone off.
Walton County officials, just a few miles down the road, had feared similar devastation. They imposed a curfew, closed a major bridge, and pulled some emergency responders off the road at the height of the storm. But when the storm passed, they were relieved. And concerned about folks who weren't as fortunate.
"We've seen videos, we've seen pictures," county spokesman Louis Svehla said. "There are some places that have been completely leveled."
Sheriff Mike Adkinson said some of his personnel had homes in Bay County and some already knew they had been damaged. He said they were waiting to be called in to help in Bay County, but the storm had destroyed communications and he had been unsuccessful in reaching anyone there.
The state Emergency Operations Center had had some contact with Bay County personnel and were organizing efforts to help.
"Multiple people from across the state are waiting," Adkinson said. "We're very blessed over here. We're very, very, very concerned about Bay, Jackson and Franklin counties.
"Bay County is in very, very tough shape," he added.
At the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee on Wednesday evening, Gov. Rick Scott gave an update on Hurricane Michael.
As the storm leaves Florida, state officials are turning toward search, rescue and recovery efforts, said Scott, who added that the outgoing storm still could produce tornadoes.
While more than 192,000 homes and businesses were without power, thousands of workers were being deployed to restore power and aid in other recovery efforts, the governor said.
“I want to thank the nation for your prayers,” Scott said. “Floridians are strong. Floridians are resilient. We’ll get through this together. Hurricane Michael will not break Florida.”
Scott said the state’s law enforcement officers and other first responders are heroes and that, “We cannot thank them enough.”
He also said he wished more people would have heeded official evacuation orders.
Now, “We need people to be very safe with generators. Don’t put a running generator in your home,” Scott said. “If it’s not safe to leave your house, don’t leave.”
The governor also said President Donald Trump is committed to making every federal resource available for the post-storm recovery.
By late Wednesday afternoon, Walton County residents had already started to return to their homes, and those who never left ventured out to take photos of the damage.
Destin, which had also been placed on high alert, also escaped mostly unscathed.
And on Okaloosa Island, a stretch of U.S. Highway 98 that commonly washes over during storms remained open, even during the hurricane’s peak. So did Okaloosa's bridges, as winds stayed in the 30-mph range, about 10 short of what it would take to force a closure.
“We didn’t lose power,” said Lynda Prestarri, who stayed at her condominium at The Breakers during the storm. “We didn’t lose water. The tide wasn’t high. The waves were beautiful.”
Prestarri, who lives on the sixth floor of the condominiums in the 300 block of Santa Rosa Boulevard, mentioned that she has been through other hurricanes. And, at least in Okaloosa County, Michael ranked as unextraordinary.
Prestarri added the storm was anticlimactic, although TV news coverage before it hit left the impression that Michael would cause heavy damage everywhere.
Freelance writer Mladen Rudman also contributed to this story.