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'Changed Forever': Florida Panhandle devastated by Michael


The devastation inflicted by Hurricane Michael came into focus Thursday with rows upon rows of homes found smashed to pieces and rescue crews struggling to enter stricken areas in hopes of accounting for hundreds of people who might have stayed behind.

At least three deaths were blamed on Michael, the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in over 50 years, and it wasn’t done yet: Though reduced to a tropical storm, it brought flash flooding to North Carolina and Virginia, soaking areas still recovering from Hurricane Florence.

Under a clear blue sky, families living along the Florida Panhandle emerged from shelters and hotels to a perilous landscape of shattered homes and shopping centers, wailing sirens and hovering helicopters.

Gov. Rick Scott said the Panhandle awoke to “unimaginable destruction.”

“So many lives have been changed forever. So many families have lost everything,” he said.

The full extent of Michael’s fury was only slowly becoming clear, with some of the hardest-hit areas difficult to reach with roads blocked by debris or water. An 80-mile stretch of Interstate 10, the main east-west route, was closed.

Video from a drone revealed some of the worst damage in Mexico Beach, where the hurricane crashed ashore Wednesday as a Category 4 monster with 155 mph winds and a storm surge of 9 feet.

Entire blocks of homes near the beach were obliterated, leaving concrete slabs in the sand. Rows and rows of other homes were rendered piles of splintered lumber. Entire roofs were torn away in the town of about 1,000 people, now a scene of utter devastation.

State officials said 285 people in Mexico Beach had defied a mandatory evacuation order ahead of Michael. More than 375,000 people up and down the Gulf Coast were ordered or urged to clear out as Michael closed in. But emergency authorities lamented that many ignored the warnings.

National Guard troops made their way into the ground-zero town and found 20 survivors Wednesday night, and more rescue crews arrived Thursday. But the fate of many residents was unknown.

Mishelle McPherson and her ex-husband searched for the elderly mother of a friend. The woman lived in a small cinderblock house about 150 yards from the Gulf and thought she would be OK. The home was found smashed, with no sign of the woman.

“Do you think her body would be here? Do you think it would have floated away?” McPherson asked.

Linda Marquardt, 67, rode out the storm with her husband at their home in Mexico Beach. When the house filled with storm surge water, they fled upstairs. “All of my furniture was floating,” she said. “A river just started coming down the road. It was awful, and now there’s just nothing left.”

As thousands of National Guard troops, law enforcement officers and medical teams spread out, the governor pleaded with people in the devastated areas to stay away because of hazards such as fallen trees and power lines.

“I know you just want to go home. You want to check on things and begin the recovery process,” Scott said. But “we have to make sure things are safe.”

More than 900,000 homes and businesses in Florida, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas were without power.

The Coast Guard said it rescued at least 27 people before and after the hurricane’s landfall, mostly from coastal homes. Nine people had to be rescued by helicopter from a bathroom of a home in hard-hit Panama City after their roof collapsed, Petty Officer 3rd Class Ronald Hodges said.

In Panama City, most homes were still standing, but no property was left undamaged. Downed power lines and twisted street signs lay all around. Roofs had been peeled off. Aluminum siding was shredded and homes were split by fallen trees. Hundreds of cars had broken windows. Pine trees were stripped and snapped off about 20 feet high.

In neighboring Panama City Beach, Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford reported widespread looting of homes and businesses. He imposed a curfew and asked for 50 members of the National Guard for protection.

The hurricane also damaged hospitals and nursing homes in the Panama City area, and officials worked to evacuate hundreds of patients. The damage at Bay Medical Sacred Heart included blown-out windows and a cracked exterior wall, though no patients were hurt.

The state mental hospital in Chattahoochee, which has a section for the criminally insane, was cut off by land, and food and supplies were being flown in, authorities said. All phone communication was cut off to the complex of nearly 1,000 residents and more than 300 staff, leaving emergency radios as their only link to the outside.

A man outside Tallahassee, Florida, was killed by a falling tree, and an 11-year-old girl in Georgia died when winds picked up a carport and dropped it on her home. One of the carport’s legs punctured the roof and hit her in the head. A driver in North Carolina was killed when a tree fell on his car.

As the storm charged north, it spun off possible tornadoes and downed power lines and trees in Georgia. Forecasters said it could drop up to 7 inches of rain over the Carolinas and Virginia before pushing out to sea. Street flooding was reported in Roanoke and other southwestern Virginia cities that reported motorists caught in flooding who had to be rescued.

In North Carolina’s mountains, drivers also had to be plucked from cars in high water. Michael’s winds also toppled trees and power lines, leaving hundreds of thousands without power. Flash flooding also was reported in North Carolina’s two largest cities, Charlotte and Raleigh.

Forecasters said Michael was still a potent tropical storm Thursday evening, centered about 5 miles northwest of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, and packing top sustained winds of 50 mph. It was racing to the northeast at 24 mph amid warnings it could spread damaging winds and more flash flooding in the region before moving offshore.

Obituaries and death notices for Oct. 12, 2018

Francis H. James

Patricia L. Mannheimer

Michael C. McCann

Marilyn G. Olm

Albert F. Pinnow

John A. Todd

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Bliss Communications earns state honor for employing workers with disabilities


Janesville resident Wesley Hoague hasn’t heard the true sound of his own voice—or much of anything at all—since he was a baby.

Yet during a Thursday work shift, the 26-year-old Janesville man with severely impaired hearing whipped his head around to note an amber-colored flashing light that popped on as he operated an advertising insert machine at Bliss Communications’ Printing and Distribution Center in Janesville.

The light signaled a jam of fliers he was feeding into the machine as dozens of newspapers trundled past on a conveyor. The warning light is something Hoague can notice even if he can’t hear the machine’s warning buzzer.

Hoague was hired a few months ago to work as a product handler at Bliss’s print plant on the city’s east side, and he’s one of almost a dozen employees with disabilities Bliss has hired and retained this year, company human resources officials said.

The state Department of Workforce Development is taking notice of employers such as Bliss for their efforts to recruit and retain workers with disabilities. The agency on Thursday presented Bliss Communications with an Exemplary Employer Award.

The award comes during Wisconsin’s Disability Employment Awareness Month, which is this month.

Bliss Communications is the parent company of The Gazette.

Department of Workforce Development officials who work through the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which trains and places people with disabilities in the job market, say the state is focusing on the disabled population as Wisconsin wrestles with historic low unemployment and a tight labor market.

Those with disabilities make up a segment of the workforce that in the past has faced barriers to employment. Recently, that has changed some. As unemployment continues to decline, more companies are considering hiring people with disabilities.

In Janesville, the unemployment rate in September was about 3 percent, a jobless rate that ranks among the lowest in decades.

“There’s a labor crunch. People are looking at incarcerated individuals, we’re trying to strengthen the K-12 pipeline through registered apprenticeships, veterans and people with disabilities. Those are the really big pipelines,” said BJ Dernbach, assistant deputy secretary for the Department of Workforce Development.

Over the last five years, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation has helped place 1,200 people with disabilities in jobs throughout Rock, Green, Lafayette, Grant, Iowa, and Richland counties.

“What we’re finding is a lot of smaller employers of maybe 25 or less are looking into employing people with disabilities,” Dernbach said. “They’re looking for one or two employees at a time. That doesn’t sound large scale, but small businesses make up the bulk of employers in the state. They’re a driver.”

Stephanie Luebke, a human resources coordinator with Bliss Communications, said Bliss has keyed on employing people with disabilities for several years, even prior to the local labor market tightening.

For the last four years, she has worked with other Bliss human resources officials and local Division of Vocational Rehabilitation agents to identify local workers with disabilities who could fit Bliss’s needs at its print plant.

Tony Smithson, vice president of print operations at Bliss Communications, said he doesn’t view the company’s employment of those with disabilities as an initiative that’s tied to any labor market trend.

“Everybody has something to offer,” Smithson said. “There could be people here whose disabilities we’ll never even know about or notice. We’re really more interested in what people have to offer than what their limitations are.”

Hoague, who is an art college graduate, wears a cochlear implant in his ear. The device helps him hear, but it’s not always useful in noisy environments.

Inside the newspaper plant, Hoague often can’t separate the hum of mechanized conveyors from human voices. He reads lips to a certain extent, but he has learned in the past few months to read employees’ body language to cue himself to what to do next.

He’s more attuned to the physical vibrations of machinery—even the feel of paper inserts that might stick together and cause problems on his production line—than he might be if he could hear.

Hoague said he had trouble finding a job for a few years before he was hired at the print plant. He said his co-workers and supervisors know he has limited hearing, but they’re learning to communicate with each other.

“I know people can have a hard time understanding me, and because I can’t hear, I can have a hard time understanding them,” Hoague said. “I’m seeing people who are willing to work with me to help me work better, every day to get a little better.

“It’s a work in progress.”

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Milton school committee sets cost limit for potential referendum


The Milton School District Strategic Planning Committee on Thursday decided to limit its potential April referendum to less than $60 million.

The committee asked representatives from Plunkett Raysich Architects to draw up facilities options costing less than $60 million and present them at next week’s committee meeting.

Members agreed that the solution to the district’s space needs must include $5.6 million in district maintenance; a new high school pool; added space for the elementary, middle and high schools; and an improved high school gymnasium.

Maintenance needs previously were estimated to cost $9.2 million.

Superintendent Tim Schigur said administrators reviewed the maintenance needs and eliminated projects that have already been addressed or will be addressed in the district’s capital maintenance plan.

The district was able to trim $3.6 million from the future referendum by:

  • Moving electrical work to the capital maintenance plan.
  • Removing the high school basement renovation project because it was finished this summer.
  • Moving additional restroom maintenance to the capital maintenance plan.
  • Making the secure high school entrance part of the high school remodeling budget.

More than 50 people attended Thursday’s community workshop.

The committee chose to fit its potential facilities resolution into a designated price range after several residents suggested that a referendum would pass only if it were less than $60 million.

Plunkett Raysich opened the meeting with five preliminary options based on past recommendations from the committee.

  • Option A: $69.3 million for additions and renovations to all elementary schools without 4K additions, high school renovations without a four-station gym, middle school renovations and maintenance.
  • Option B: $72.1 million for a new middle school, converting the existing middle school into an elementary school, a high school pool addition and maintenance.
  • Option C: $85.1 million for a new high school, converting existing high school into a middle school, converting existing middle school into an elementary school and maintenance.
  • Option D: $79.5 million for additions and renovations to all elementary schools without 4K additions, high school renovations with a four-station gym, middle school renovations and maintenance.
  • Option E: $64.1 million for additions and renovations to Harmony and East elementary schools without 4K additions, high school renovations without a four-station gym, middle school renovations and maintenance.

Committee Co-chairman Joe Martin stressed that all options were preliminary and could be manipulated based on needs and costs.

Residents supported some options but said a referendum that costs less would be more likely to pass.

Any compromise the community makes on the space solution will be a compromise up, not down, Schigur said. Any solution is better than what the district has now, he said.