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Driving home

Mandi Jackson watched her camera feed helplessly as waves surged into the front yard of her home in St. George Island, Florida. She was 250 miles away in Auburn, Alabama, and there was nothing she could do when Hurricane Michael hit.

Posted: Oct 16, 2018 2:23 PM
Updated: Oct 16, 2018 2:45 PM

It looked as if the ocean had come ashore. Large swells of sea water crashed into residences, inundating neighborhoods.

Mandi Jackson watched her camera feed helplessly as waves surged into the front yard of her home in St. George Island, Florida. She was 250 miles away in Auburn, Alabama, and there was nothing she could do when Hurricane Michael hit.

She and her husband Frank dreamed of retiring in the house by the ocean. Months' worth of renovations were destroyed.

She feared she may not have a home to return to.

"I knew it was going to be a total loss," Jackson told CNN after watching footage of waves busting through the windows of her house.

"That's when I knew it was real when I watched the sofa float by."

Two days later, on Friday, the 47-year-old retired elementary school teacher started the drive back to Florida to check on her home. This is her journey.

7 a.m. ET

Jackson packed up her full-size Ford pickup truck, along with a 16-foot enclosed trailer of supplies for friends who may need them in the coming weeks. She set off from Auburn, Alabama.

The trip to St. George Island should take 4.5 hours, she said. She planned to unload supplies, gather what possessions she could salvage and then head back to Alabama before dusk.

10 a.m.

"I am on my way now with a trailer loaded with supplies for friends down there, as they will be without power for weeks. Passing several power trucks and storm recovery teams, so that is promising!" she said.

She hoped to make it to the island by early afternoon after checking on three people before getting to her home.

"This will be our first time to see it in person," she said. "I'm sure I may finally cry for a minute, but even with this loss of home we are way better off than some others' situation and that keeps me going!"

12:40 p.m.

Everything south of Marianna, Florida, is bad. There's no power, no gas, no ice and no stores open.

Stopped and stuck, Jackson waited on Florida State Road 73 after she crossed Interstate 10. She waited 45 minutes for trees to be cut and removed from the road, she said.

"Whoever goes down there, I sure hope they have four-wheel drive for the sand, the mud and just everything," Jackson said. "All of highway 73 is like off-roading the whole time. I was so scared our trailer was going to flip over."

2 p.m.

Jackson and her husband saw stark destruction in the farm lands around them. A tree farm was nearly flattened on the right, and down the road on the left, it looked like cotton bales had exploded.

"The bales of cotton, the farmers rushed to get the cotton harvested up and it just looked like a white Christmas going through there," Jackson said.

2:15 p.m.

Jackson and her husband detoured from their usual route because of road issues and headed east on State Road 20 into Blountstown.

"Gosh, those poor people," Jackson said. "There were people sitting there outside with a sign asking for food and sitting outside in shock."

FEMA had been in the area handing out ice and water, and the National Guard was also bringing in supplies, Jackson noted.

2:30 p.m.

Tate's Hell State Forest in Carrabelle looked like it had been hardly touched. Only a tree here or there had fallen, and it looked a lot better than what the Jackson's had just driven through, they said.

"It was just odd, the track of the hurricane," Jackson said. "Tate's Hell is usually the spookiest thing when you go down there but it was actually peaceful. It was the only true clear shot we had down through there."

3 p.m.

When they got to where State Road 65 dead ends into US Route 98 east of Apalachicola, the Jacksons found the road destroyed. They detoured through a neighborhood.

"The road is just crumbled. It looks wavy and crumbled," she said.

3:30 p.m.

The Jacksons pulled up to their house, the home they been renovating to be their retirement home.

The cinder-block base stood and so did the overall structure, but several windows had shattered. Jackson had seen the waves burst through the windows on her security camera days before.

The dishwasher and sink sat on the floor, ripped from the wall. Kitchen cabinet doors lay in the other room. Cushions from a blue-and-white striped couch were strewn about.

The storm tore out the drywall. All that's left are the wooden frames of the would-be walls. A layer of mud covered the tile floor.

"It's just unbelievable, it's totally gutted. It's just a mess. It looks like a bomb went off," Jackson said.

"You forget about little things you leave behind and you're just like awww. But then you have to remember how lucky you are and just suck it up and keep going."

Jackson and her husband spent almost four hours salvaging what possessions they could before checking on other peoples' properties and delivering supplies to those who needed them.

6 p.m.

Curfew was coming with dusk on the horizon. It was time to leave.

"I didn't cry until we had to leave on Friday afternoon," Jackson said. "It was just total numbness and surreal."

Each time Jackson brings up something that happened to her home, she quickly changes the subject to all the other people who have it much worse.

"I dried my tears because we're pretty lucky. We're very lucky with the fact that we have insurance and we have somewhere to go to," she said. "I'm more concerned right now with my friends who have no insurance there, who have no power or water still."

She planned to return again this week, bringing insulin, prescription medication, fuel and other supplies to her friends and neighbors.

7:15 p.m.

With trees blocking a full lane on Florida State Road 69 before Interstate 10, the Jacksons cautiously drove into the darkness. Headlights appeared suddenly in the oncoming lane. The other cars reversed so the Jacksons could pass in the single lane.

"We should have left an hour earlier," Jackson later told CNN.

8:38 p.m.

The pair had no cell reception until they had almost reached Dothan in southern Alabama.

"From the Florida state line, coming back at night, it was pitch black dark until we got to the Alabama state line," said her husband Frank.

11:30 p.m.

Fifteen hours after they left their home in Auburn, they made it back safely.

The damage they saw in their home is not going to deter Jackson from going back, first to help her neighbors and later on to rebuild.

"We will be in St. George Island no matter what happens," Jackson said. "That's where my ashes will be spread. It means that much to me."

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