(CNN) - Mexico Beach, Florida, is not just destroyed. For the most part, it's not there anymore.
Hurricane Michael's wind and storm surge ripped up buildings like posies and carried them inland. Where homes and hotels once stood, offering premium views of the Gulf of Mexico, a few boards lay scattered across foundations.
A few structures in this town of 1,200 remain standing, but they're the exceptions. And that's not all that's missing.
Food is in short supply. Residents are scavenging in the street for food that spilled out of a convenience store. The Red Cross is setting up feeding stations. Holmes County sheriff's deputies are guarding goods and water trucks as they arrive.
The situation is so precarious that one local official is warning people to stay away.
"The more people that return, it's just going to get in the way," Mexico Beach councilwoman Linda Albrecht said. "Please don't come down."
'Our lives are gone'
While many cities along the Florida Panhandle enjoy the protection of various channel, barrier and tide islands, which can help stifle the impact of storm surge on the mainland, Mexico Beach sits between Crooked Island and the St. Joseph Peninsula, directly on the water.
Cars, mattresses, grills and toilets are tossed all over town. An entire house was thrown 100 yards down the beach, landing on its side.
"We had furniture in our house that wasn't even ours," resident Scott Boutwell said. When he returned to his home Thursday, he said the only belonging he could find was a briefcase.
Search and rescue teams are heading to Mexico Beach, including Tennessee Task Force One, a FEMA Urban response team. The rubble piles and mangled structures, mixed with downed power lines and trees, are expected to complicate recovery efforts.
Rescuers have vowed to press on. In the meantime, residents are taking stock of the damage and looking for their neighbors.
Boutwell rode out the storm because he didn't think it was going to be so bad. By the time he realized that wasn't true, the bridges were already closed.
As Michael's center passed near Mexico Beach, homes "tumbled and crashed" on the beach, Boutwell said. Cars floated by. Debris whipped through the air.
"When the water came in, houses started floating in front of our home," he said. "Then everything just went black. You couldn't see anything anywhere."
When visibility returned, "we realized everything was gone," Boutwell said, including his neighbor's beach home and car. He said he thinks she was home when Michael hit. No one knows where she is, he said.
Everywhere he looks, the feeling of loss is palpable, he said.
"The thing is, this is a small little town," he said. "Every restaurant's gone, every store's gone and then my neighbors -- everybody's homes are gone. ... There's nothing left here anymore."
"When you think about it, our lives are gone. So what do you do?"
Recover could take years
Patricia Mulligan said she survived Hurricane Andrew in 1992, only to encounter the wrath of another storm Wednesday.
Mulligan and her family rode out Hurricane Michael in their Mexico Beach condo. She said she moved to the popular seaside destination, about 20 miles east of Panama City Beach, less than three months ago.
As the Category 4 storm's center crossed nearby, Mulligan said, her concrete complex shook and vibrated against sustained winds of around 155 mph. Water seeped into her fourth-floor apartment.
When she dared to look outside, water was grazing the fronds of tall palm trees on the beach. Homes were swallowed in storm surge. Soon enough, Mexico Beach's emerald waters and sugar-sand beaches were covered in a dark sea of debris, she said.
Michael ripped apart beach homes and boats, she said. As far as she could see, only one home was still intact. The rest were missing roofs or siding.
The marina her brother owns is submerged, she said. The docks are gone and several boats were capsized, including one belonging to her brother, she said.
"This is total devastation," she told CNN. "We didn't think it was going to be this bad."
Asked why her family didn't leave, she said she thought they were safe on the fourth floor of a concrete building. Her home is still standing, unlike others, she said.
When she looks outside, she sees damage that reminds her of Andrew, damage that could take as long to rebound from.
"Same devastation. Same winds," she said. "I would have to say at least as long as it did for Hurricane Andrew, and that took months and months. Could be even years."
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