As It Happens

This man rode out Hurricane Michael in his motel — and the walls caved in around him

Charles Smith was holed up in his Gulf View Motel with his six cats when Hurricane Michael hit Florida Panhandle with deadly force.

Charles Smith was holed up with his 6 cats when the building was pummelled with flood water and raging winds

Charles Smith looks at what is left of his Mexico Beach, Fla., motel after it was destroyed when Hurricane Michael passed through the area on Oct.11. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Charles Smith was holed up in his Gulf View Motel with his six cats when Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle with deadly force.

Smith, 57, had weathered 1995's Hurricane Opal without any trouble, so he saw no reason to abandon his Mexico Beach, Fla., motel or his pets for Michael. 

But when the storm made landfall Wednesday and started ripping the rooftops and siding from people's homes, he quickly realized he'd miscalculated. 

"I got a call from my next-door neighbour ... he said, 'Well, looks like we should have gone.' I said, 'Yep, we should have,'" Smith told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"I heard the concern in his voice. He said, 'It looks like this is it.' I said, 'Yes sir, it's been good knowing you.'"

Smith and his neighbour both survived the storm — but for Smith, it was not without with a fight.

From left to right, Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey, 71, Lee Cathey, 37, and Smith, 56, survey damage in the coastal township. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via Associated Press)

Smith was on the top floor of his motel when the winds began roaring at 250 kilometres per hour.

Afraid the hurricane would tear the roof off his building, he grabbed his cats and brought them to a room on the ground floor — which he now says was a "bad mistake."

"I tried to get them out after the water started coming underneath the door. Then it came to the window," he said. 

A huge wooden beam smashed through one of the doors, he said, knocking it off his hinges and crashing into the refrigerator, which started floating around the room.

'I couldn't save them'

"I tried to get out. I grabbed one of my cats. I got him out — threw him up the stairwell to higher ground."

When he returned to the room, the force of the water slammed the room door shut, trapping him inside.

"I had all the debris from my neighbour's house in the room. The wall was collapsing in on itself," Smith said. "I had the cats up on the bed. They were just terrified."

Despite the force of the water, Smith somehow managed to pry the open the door again and throw a second cat to safety. That's when he said he got "sucked out" into the motel's backyard.

"I grabbed onto a wire to hold to keep from getting sucked out into the Gulf," he said. "I ended up getting sucked back into the laundry room. The refrigerator in there was over and it beat me up a little bit."

Smith, left, finds a few bottles of water in a displaced refrigerator in the middle of US 98 in the coastal township. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via Associated Press)

He made his way back to the room where his four remaining cats were trapped together on the bed while the water levels rose rapidly.

But this time, there was nothing he could do.

"I tried to turn the bed around and the wall caved in and they flew out on the bed, and I got — I just, I couldn't save them."

'When they tell you to get out — get out'

Smith survived storm with wind burns, bruises and cuts on his body. His motel was destroyed. 

At least 18 people in four states have died because of the storm, including one in Mexico Beach. Dozens of people remain missing in the Florida Panhandle communities left in ruins.

Rescuers said they expected the death toll to rise and they were using cadaver dogs and heavy equipment to search collapsed homes in small towns such as Mexico Beach and Panama City for more victims.

"If we lose only one life, to me that's going to be a miracle," Al Cathey, mayor of Mexico Beach, a town of about 1,000, told Florida media.

Cathey said 46 people remained unaccounted for on Sunday. Smith said one of his neighbours is among them. 

Mexico Beach was devastated when Hurricane Michael made landfall on Wednesday in the Florida Panhandle. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

Smith was one of hundreds of Florida residents who weathered the storm despite urgent warnings to evacuate the area.

"Everybody thought it was going to be another Opal. And Opal was bad, but it wasn't that bad," he said. "We've never seen in our lives that kind of power in a hurricane. It's just horrible."

Survivors grappled with power outages and shortages of food and water amid the mazes of uprooted trees and debris. 

"There's just basically nothing left, not even trees," Smith said.

"When you close your eyes and open your eyes you cannot right away figure out where you were. Even though I've been living there for 34 years, it's just unrecognizable."

When it comes to extreme weather warnings, Smith said he's learned his lesson. 

"When they tell you to get out — get out," he said. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Charles Smith produced by Imogen Birchard. 

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