The little Florida town that Hurricane Michael wiped off the map has longtime residents determined to recover and a project, Never Forgotten Coast, doling out “micro-grants” to let small businesses begin rebuilding. But even if much needed federal dollars finally reach Mexico Beach to build a shinier town, people hope the soul of their beloved home will not be lost forever.
Only 35 miles separate the coastal towns of Apalachicola and Mexico Beach. I was 18 the first time I drove that short stretch of Highway 98 in the family Chrysler, my father at my side. He loved the glittering white sands of the Florida Panhandle, and we often spent lazy Saturdays there.
Those 35 miles bring many changes. Heading west, the time moves back an hour and the murky waters of a bay, once laden with oysters, give way to the turquoise of the Gulf, just like it did decades ago. But now, there is another big difference. Apalachicola is still a charming fishing and tourist town; Mexico Beach lies leveled, the sea lapping on bludgeoned beaches and the balmy breeze billowing through utter devastation.
It’s my first visit to Mexico Beach since 1981, and I arrive seven months after Hurricane Michael roared ashore here. It was the first Category 5 storm to make landfall in the United States since Andrew in 1992 and the first to hit the Florida Panhandle. It was so destructive the National Hurricane Center retired the name. There will never be another Michael.
Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey likes to say the national news mentioned his town’s name more times in the 10 days after the storm than it had in the last 10 years. He hoped the politicians, aid workers, and reporters who descended here last October would keep Mexico Beach alive in the national memory. But the outsiders have left, and private donations for the Panhandle have been considerably lower than what people gave to Texas after Harvey or to the Carolinas after Florence or to South Florida after Irma. Maybe it’s because this part of Florida is mostly rural and not so wealthy that people here feel abandoned. They once took immense pride in their slogan, “The Forgotten Coast.” Now it’s irony.
The people here genuinely feel forgotten.
And perhaps frightened as this year’s hurricane season arrives. The thought of a monster storm is terrifying anytime but even more so this year, with memories raw and full recovery still a dream.
I saw photographs and videos documenting Michael’s rage. I remember hearing the same two words echoed by almost every journalist who reported from Mexico Beach back in October: “It’s gone.”
Nothing prepared me for my visit. Nothing could. It’s like getting ready for war. You can’t imagine it; you have to step onto the battlefield to know how it looks and smells, to know the fear.
In some parts of Mexico Beach, it feels as though the monster storm hit yesterday. I think instantly of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, after which entire cities and towns lay crumbled for years. But Haiti is a struggling nation. This is America, and I can hardly believe the freshness of disaster in Mexico Beach.
Thousands of pine trees and palms — snapped like toothpicks — slice the landscape at jarring angles. Downed electrical lines create tangled webs on the ground. Rows and rows of houses are reduced to mangled metal and piles of concrete, shattered like fragile glass. In front of one heap lies a child’s bicycle. Shoes adorn the rubble like ornaments. Sofas ruined by wind and water lie upside down on their bellies.
On October 9, the day before the storm, Mexico Beach counted 2,700 housing units, according to the mayor. Today, there are fewer than 500, and many are just hollow shells. Michael destroyed about 85 percent of the homes and businesses in Mexico Beach.
People searched through the wreckage to salvage things that gave meaning to their lives: photos of weddings and newborn babies, American flags, warped books. Peggy Wood managed to save the panel of stained-glass flowers that graced the front door of her beloved Driftwood Inn. Oddly enough, Ellen Lail found a hurricane lamp — and two concrete turtles bought in Bali that dropped from the deck as 155 mph winds and an 18- to 20-foot storm surge uprooted her beachfront house to a street 200 yards away, north of Highway 98.
In other parts of Mexico Beach, it feels as though the storm hit an eternity ago, as though a nuclear holocaust left nothing but desolation. Where there were homes, lie concrete slabs, entire lots cleared of the evidence of lives led and the days, weeks and months of terrible loss and suffering. Blue tarps flutter in the wind, reminders of the protracted bureaucracy and fights with insurance companies. There are not enough debris removal crews (I met one hired in from Tennessee) or contractors to rebuild.
And not enough money.
The Florida Legislature just earmarked an additional $220 million for North Florida recovery efforts, but not a single federal dollar has yet materialized. A $19 billion disaster aid package should have passed Congress long ago but is held hostage to political rancor. It would finally head to the White House on June 4, many weeks after my visit to Mexico Beach.
Rebuilding at nearby Tyndall Air Force Base has also slowed without money. The seafood industry is in the same boat. The bill aims to fund relief efforts in a wide swath of communities affected by hurricanes, typhoons, and wildfires. Florida would receive significant portions of various funds the bill would establish: $150 million for “fisheries disaster assistance,” $150 million for the restoration of “rural community facilities,” $125 million for “watershed and flood prevention operations,” and $650 million for economic development assistance, among others.
In Mexico Beach, talk of relief funding is front and center for Republicans, Democrats, and everyone in between. The Federal Emergency Management Agency made $2.7 million available for debris removal. That money, however, has been spent, city officials said, even though so much remains unfinished. The town of Mexico Beach had an annual budget of $3.5 million. Debris removal alone, the mayor estimates, will exceed $60 million.
In the absence of adequate government funding, ordinary folks have stepped up to help. Two of them are Tallahassee storytellers Chelsea and Alex Workman.
Chelsea’s father, Kevin Lanier, owns KC Sportfishing, which took anglers out to deep water. Most Mexico Beach businesses are family-operated, and the Workmans realized how difficult it would be for them to get up and running. So they launched a campaign called Never Forgotten Coast, a series of oral histories and photographs that they published on a website. They sold T-shirts and stickers to raise money that allowed them to dole out $1,000 micro-grants to small business owners who had lost everything. So far, they have given $30,000 to more than 20 businesses. It’s not a life-changing amount of money, but perhaps it’s just enough to help reboot.
But rebuilding remains a daunting task, and many of the town’s residents face an agonizing decision: stay or leave?
Of the 1,200 people who had homes here on October 9, only 400 remain.
Mexico Beach has no infrastructure left intact. The sole grocery store looks exactly the way it did the day after the storm. There’s no open bank or gas station. The water tank was knocked down. And Michael washed away the long, wooden public pier that offered fishers and sunset worshippers an inviting spot for more than 40 years. Even before Michael, the city talked about replacing the storm-weathered pier and made it a priority to find the $7 million needed for a concrete pier that would be 200 feet longer and 4 feet wider. Who knows when a new pier will be built now that there are so many more urgent needs?
The pier was a big draw, but now, among the many posts about the city on the tourism site, TripAdvisor was this one: “The Public Pier at Mexico Beach was destroyed by Hurricane Michael. There is nothing left of it, and much of the town of Mexico Beach, so don't plan to visit there unless you bring everything you need for a day out with you, including a portable toilet. The entire beachfront has been wiped out and there is nothing left but sand and rubble.”
Imagine reading this about your hometown, especially if its No. 1 revenue source is tourism. Michael destroyed all four of the hotels here. You can stand on Highway 98 and see the ocean right through the hollowed-out floors of the El Governor Motel.
But rebuilding Mexico Beach isn’t just about dollars.
To understand this town better, I go in search of the mayor and find him atop a forklift at his hardware store. Cathey is a lifelong resident and perhaps knows Mexico Beach better than anyone. He co-authored the town’s history book that’s a part of the “Images of America” series; you’ve likely seen the sepia-toned cover photographs of the paperback books that are usually available in local bookstores and historical centers. Cathey owns the Ace Hardware, now open in a temporary location inside an old lumber warehouse. The store stays busy with customers looking for nails, plywood, doors, windows, and anything else you might need to rebuild a house. The closest Home Depot and Lowes are both more than 25 miles away in Panama City.
Cathey’s store is now the only national franchise in Mexico Beach. The only chain restaurant used to be the Subway sandwich shop inside a gas station on Highway 98. The whole station was wiped out.
Highway 98 is a big reason Mexico Beach even came to be. Construction of the road was completed in the 1930s, and a few years later, the military opened Tyndall Field, now Tyndall Air Force Base. Just before they headed to battle, thousands of airmen found fun and frolic on the same beaches I would later come to adore. After World War II ended, a group of businessmen developed acres and acres of beachfront property and triggered the growth of Mexico Beach until citizens finally incorporated it as a city in 1967.
But development never took over here as it did in nearby Panama City or Destin. There were no high-rise condos or outlet malls, none of the tacky oceanside attractions of plastic dinosaurs and mutant alligators that gave Panama City its reputation as the “Redneck Riviera.”
Many of the houses in Mexico Beach were old cinder-block Florida cottages and ranch-style bungalows built on sand. They could never pass Florida code requirements in 2019. New homes must be elevated 18 feet above sea level and be able to withstand 120 mph winds, Mayor Cathey tells me, as we amble over to a tent that serves as the dining room of Mango Marley’s. It is one of the few eateries that have reopened in the form of a food truck. It still serves up its “Floribbean” food but on a limited menu as the owners attempt to rebuild.
“Step into my office,” Cathey laughs as we take a seat at an empty table.
It’s a miracle he can even crack jokes, I think, as he begins telling me about the town he has called home for 67 years.
Storms are a fact of life in this part of the country, but Cathey had never seen one like Michael. He waited too long to evacuate and then weathered the hurricane hunkered down at home with his wife and youngest son. He was lucky he didn’t lose his house, but the day after the storm was unimaginably difficult. He and his son made their way toward the family’s hardware store and saw nothing but destruction. The business he had built for the last 40 years was gone. The city he had led for so many years was gone.
October 11 was the toughest day of his life, he says. He remembers his walk that day was in silence. There were no words.
This was a sleepy beach and fishing town of mostly white folks, many of whom had money and hailed from cities like Atlanta and Birmingham. Some came to visit, fell in love and stayed. People like Peggy and Tom Wood, who in 1975 ended up buying the Driftwood Inn. Others were more recent transplants. Jacques and Bella Sebastiao left Brunswick, Georgia, and purchased their home in Mexico Beach just two months before the storm. They were mesmerized by the color of the water and wanted to live somewhere where they did not have to cross a road to get to the beach. Now they spend their days at an outdoor table perched in front of their FEMA trailer, not knowing how long it will take before they can start construction of a new home.
Still, others had childhood connections to this city. Atlantan Ellen Lail’s parents owned a sprawling cinder block beach house on 15th Street, the kind that had room to sleep children, grandchildren, siblings, aunts, and uncles. In 2007, Lail and her husband Mike bought their own place, just two houses from the water.
Yes, the Gulf is gorgeous here, but people also came for another crucial reason: family, fellowship, and that old-worldly feel so often absent from our hectic lives. This was the kind of place where you could leave the front door unlocked and your flip-flops and tote bags unattended for hours on the beach. You could walk down to the Shell Shack and buy shrimp, grouper, and cobia or whatever else the fishermen had just hauled in.
Every time I mention that I have not visited here since the early 1980s, I get the same response: Little has changed since then.
“What we had here was unique, so charming,” the mayor tells me. “Old Florida. That’s gone forever.”
On this late spring day, the sun is high in the sky and the waters bathtub calm; there’s no hint of the menace that was and could again be. Summer break is near. Last year at this time, Mexico Beach was buzzing. The rooms at the historic Driftwood Inn were rented. Visitors and residents alike feasted at Killer Seafood, and Kevin Lanier was taking customers out on sports fishing trips and leisure cruises on his 35-foot Luhrs Open. Last year, he told me, was his best ever.
But now there’s little but battered palms and 11 purple martin houses where the Driftwood once stood. Owner Peggy Wood and her daughter Shauna finally cleared the debris in March and hired an architect from Tallahassee to rebuild the inn. The finish date is an optimistic 18 months.
“We’re planning on at least two years,” Wood says.
All that’s left at Killer Seafood is a propane tank. Owner Michael Scoggins moved here 15 years ago from Los Angeles and opened the beachside restaurant. The day after the storm, when he walked down Highway 98 from his home, Scoggins knew he’d lost everything. He thought about retiring but decided that he alone, and not his namesake storm, would play a role in choosing when to sell his business.
Lanier, a former air-traffic controller for 30 years, fixed up his boat — even though it incurred $9,500 in damages and his insurance deductible was $9,000.
In the days after Michael, President Trump visited Mexico Beach. So did the director of FEMA. The mayor thanked them for coming, shook their hands, and took pictures transmitted across the land. He told them: “Don’t forget about us.”
On this day in May, Cathey will again meet with Trump a few miles down Highway 98 at Tyndall. But seven months on, Cathey, the eternal optimist, finds it hard to embellish the truth. And it’s a hard truth.
“If we can’t get some help, our recovery process will bog down,” he says. “We are grateful for everything and anything, but so far no federal dollars have come here. We were the third largest storm to hit this country.
“I feel forgotten. And our region has become a political pawn.”
Then he tells me something else that I had not considered. Because a majority of people — about 75 percent — own primary homes elsewhere, they have places to live and all the time in the world to get their lives back in order here.
“They have the luxury of patience,” Cathey says.
For business owners, there’s little point in rushing to reopen if the customers are not here.
“If you’re a souvenir shop owner, why would you be interested in coming back quickly?” Cathey asks.
On every block there’s a “for sale” sign and for every lot, two or three buyers eyeing it. Developers are homing in to make a fast buck as older and less wealthy residents make the painful decision to abandon their lives here. Still, others who did not carry adequate insurance policies are forced to go because they lack the dollars needed to rebuild.
Inevitably, new people will move in. Residents hope they won’t all be wealthy city folks who arrive in tinted BMWs and drop bundles of cash into luxury homes that are secondary in their lives. Some residents have defiantly put up “not for sale” signs on their empty lots. Mexico Beach could readily turn into the kind of watercolor town that is Seaside or SanDestin. But no one here wants that. They hope the city will hold onto its strict development regulations and guidelines.
But they know they have to prepare themselves for Mexico Beach 2.0, a newer, shinier city than the one they had before.
As the day nears an end, I head east on Highway 98, back through Apalachicola toward Tallahassee, on a drive that was once so familiar to me. On this evening, I think of what Alex Workman told me: The best thing you can do to help Mexico Beach is to visit. The beaches are open. There are places to eat, though you have to stay somewhere else. I applaud the hope in his heart as the wreckage of an entire city appears in my rearview mirror. This place can never again be the seaside haven of my youth, the one that everyone thought would never change. Such was Michael’s fury. But it can be a town again.
“We loved the charm and community of Mexico Beach,” Mike Lail tells me later. His words echo those of the mayor.
“We never thought it would be different,” he says. “But now it is. I can only hope the soul of it will still be there.”
There’s no insurance for that.