A lone white SUV, all four of its doors still flung open, remains parked in the center of an abandoned road filled with piles of debris, pieces of homes, and standing water, as a drone-controlled camera pans over what little remains of Mexico Beach, Florida, after Hurricane Michael swallowed the coastal town earlier this week.
With astonishingly strong winds, the near-Category 5 hurricane transformed the quaint beachside community's homes and hotels into ragged frames and foundations. In bird's-eye footage, boats look like they were haphazardly picked up and dropped atop palm trees, and entire chunks of neighborhoods have vanished, their remains cluttered along the glassy canal.
The hurricane, which has killed at least six people since it made landfall Wednesday, is the third most intense hurricane ever to strike the US. The Florida Panhandle has never recorded such a powerful storm, and its decimated communities are the evidence. Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long described the region as "ground zero."
"It's almost like a tornado hit, the way these winds acted," John van de Lindt, an expert in disaster resilience and planning, told BuzzFeed News. "These structures were not designed for a storm like this. I don't think you really can design for these types of storms."
What has surprised experts, Van de Lindt said, is the ferocity with which Michael's winds struck Florida's Panhandle — an area with building codes not prepared to handle a storm of that magnitude.
Videos show a churning white wall of wind and rain bending trees backward, nearly to the ground, and sending pieces of car bumpers and front doors sailing through the air.
The drone footage, he said, is startling because homes and buildings dotted along the coast aren't built to weather such powerful winds. Based on the state's current codes, structures where Michael made landfall are built to withstand gusts of 120–130 mph. Mexico Beach incurred gales of 155 mph, with some gusts topping about 175 mph.
"This is the first big wind event of this size we have seen in decades, and we believe that we are going to see more of these higher-intensity events because of warmer water," he said. "It's like throwing gasoline on a fire for a hurricane."
Past storms, like Florence, were disastrous because of their extreme rains, storm surge, and slow, lingering speeds, which scientists attributed to rising seas and warming oceans. Van de Lindt said Michael is yet another example of how climate change is amplifying their intensity.
"What really caught me by surprise is even the bigger, industrial buildings and schools were damaged," Van de Lindt said. "We don't normally see that happen in hurricanes. They're supposed to survive that."
The storm damaged the area's roads and bridges, rendering Mexico Beach inaccessible, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott implored the town's nearly 1,200 residents to stay away from their coastal homes until crews could clear debris and better assess the damage, which is expected to be monumental.
Van de Lindt and other experts, like Colorado State University meteorologist Phil Klotzbach, hope that the hurricane's quick, all-encompassing devastation will force officials to reevaluate building codes.
"We probably haven't even seen the worst of the damage because many of these communities are still off-the-grid," Klotzbach noted, adding that the hurricane's intensity when it made landfall "was surprising and can happen again."
Stunned and horrified residents who chose to stay and ride out the hurricane captured winds vibrating their concrete condos and surging waters enveloping houses up to their roofs for more than an hour.
"It wasn't expected to be as strong as it was," the scientist said. "It was nonstop intensification even when it finally hit land. Usually, they weaken, but this storm was on a mission."