Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle in October 2018 and left the town of Mexico Beach devastated. Alex and Chelsea Workman’s Never Forgotten Coast project collected the stories of business owners, along with photographs that captured their dogged determination to rebuild. And the project produced income that has funded, in small pieces, the beginning of comeback efforts.
A story can be a valuable weapon. Just ask any business owner in Mexico Beach, Florida, who got a “micro-grant” from Never Forgotten Coast, a project brought to life by Alex and Chelsea Workman. The Workmans are commercial photographers in Tallahassee, and their connection to Mexico Beach is tight: Chelsea’s father captains a fishing boat there.
“He was texting us photos, and we were watching the restaurant where we ate lunch the week before getting blown away on a webcam,” says Alex Workman about their communication with his father-in-law on the day of Hurricane Michael. “It was deeply, definitely personal. We had to do something, but we didn't necessarily know what that was.”
Soon, the idea for “Never Forgotten Coast” was born. The Workmans began collecting the stories of business people around town and photographed them. They printed T-shirts, a simple design that incorporates a heart shape into the state’s outline, right where Mexico Beach is located. They designed a large wooden panel with the heart design and used drones to shoot photos from directly above the subjects as they laid on the panel, placed in each photograph on the ruins of the business.
The project did more than just portray the devastation of the storm and the absolute determination of longtime residents to bring the town back, but also became a vehicle to help those businesses begin the slow and frustrating process of rebuilding.
“This idea came to me that the greatest way to seek sustainable recovery is economic recovery. If we can get people back to work, you're going to see an exponential decrease in recovery time,” Workman says. “I was researching [and found] an organization that offered micro-grants after (Hurricane) Harvey in a Houston neighborhood. They were doing … one geographical area, and they saw a decrease in recovery times. You might not think $1,000 can do a lot, but, for example, somebody could put a down payment on a trailer that they can use to operate their restaurant in the parking lot of their business while they rebuild. They can begin to hire a contractor or an architect or an engineer, so when they get their insurance money, they don't have to sort all that stuff out. So, by being able to have small pieces of cash infused into the private sector – not loans — it's actually incredible to see how that can really transform a region. Because in Florida, there's no private sector support for natural disasters. You have the (federal) Small Business Administration and the (state) Small Business Development Corporation doing small business loans. Our SBDC is basically a stopgap program until you get your SBA loans, because it's a little bit more of a lengthy process — the amount of time and paperwork it takes. My father-in-law the charter captain retired after 33 years with the federal government, so he's a little bit competent in the way he knows how to fill out that paperwork. But he had like 35 requests [for additional documents] from the SBA before they would clear anything. To our knowledge, this is the very first micro-grant program ever in the state of Florida to respond to a natural disaster.”
Here we present the stories of three Mexico Beach businesses, told by the owners in their own words. You can see the entire “Never Forgotten Coast” project on its website.
— Chuck Reece
PEGGY & SHAWNA WOOD
- Driftwood Inn -
Mom decided she wanted to get the kids out of Atlanta and raise us in a small town, so we came down here in 1970 and my parents bought a beach house on 34th Street. A year later, we moved here and she wanted to find something to do where she could be home with all three kids, so they bought the Driftwood. It had seven units and as they could, my parents built on, one more unit at a time. Over the years, as my dad made money in advertising in Georgia, Mom was taking that money and putting it into the hotel. In 1994, it burned down and it was rebuilt, but the front wall and inside six feet has remained the same.
Eighty percent of our customers were repeat customers. We weren’t a Ritz-Carlton by any means. Our rooms had antiques, they had all tile floors, and we were the only place that allowed pets, but the repeats kept us alive. We had potlucks, movie nights, craft parties and painting classes. We built a chapel and had hundreds of weddings here. Vow renewals and memorials. It was such a special place.
Our favorite things about this community are the special things that we get to do. We have the special events committee that helps put on the gumbo festival, the wine festival, Christmas tree lightings, etc. We did a campaign where you got a palm tree with a plaque and those trees have lined the beach for a long time.
We evacuated for Hurricane Michael at the last minute. We had guests that didn’t want to leave so we couldn’t go until they were all gone. We went up to Dothan [Alabama] and rode it out with the family. There was a lady at the Summer House that had a camera so we could see what was happening and when you saw the Driftwood from the front, everything looked relatively okay. We were so excited. But when we got back, man, it was such a hard blow.
We knew the houses were gone and the cottages were gone but we really felt okay knowing that the main building was there. But now they’re telling us they have to tear it down.
We came back from Dothan full-time about a week after the storm and we moved back into our house about a month ago. The bottom floor will be completely gutted, but we’ll renovate it so Mom can stay in it, since she lived in the top of the Driftwood.
Everything was gone. It was so heartbreaking. Pictures didn’t show what it was until we got here. I cried for two weeks. All these people wanted interviews but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to talk about it.
We’ve already got an architect, a contractor, and a structural engineer talking about plans and how we’re going to rebuild, but at this point we’re waiting for the city to let us know what we can do. We’re moving forward as much as we can right now and we want to be back in business as soon as possible. There was a meeting with local business owners and everyone was asked to raise their hand if they weren’t going to rebuild, and not a single hand went up. So the spirit is still here.
I want my kids to experience the Florida I did. I was the one that fought my mom the most when we moved here because I couldn’t believe that she would take me away from Atlanta to a small town with only a few kids. And now I fight her the most for not wanting to leave. I know everything will be shiny and new, and I think that’s ok, as long as they still keep the charm of Mexico Beach. We have a lot of property and there could be a lot of money if we sold out, but we don’t want to and we don't want to see big condos and big money come in. My parents got this property less than everyone else bid for it because they promised they would never put a big condo on it. And they never will.
- Killer Seafood -
I’ve been living in Mexico Beach for 15 years. I moved here from L.A. with my girlfriend and my business partner, who is also my girlfriend’s brother. I found this place because my brother had moved down here from Atlanta about 5 years before I did. When I moved here, I figured I could take things I learned out in LA as a bartender and open up a little restaurant here.
I wanted an open line kitchen and I thought it would be unique. People liked that view a lot. They knew nothing was hidden. Our building had previously been a post office, a police substation, a real estate office, and even someone’s vacation home, but we created something pretty special here.
I was never going to evacuate for the hurricane. I never have for any of the other ones we’ve had. I just wanted to be here for it. I obviously didn’t think it was going to turn and be as bad as it was, but I would do it again. Maybe I’m that protective of my things, but I would rather be present instead of watching it from a far. Had I not known that a tree was on my roof and water was pouring into my house, I wouldn’t have been able to get back the next day to start working on it. If you went away, you weren’t getting back in quick.
Near the beginning, the wind picked up then kind of died down a little bit, so I went down to the beach and took some pictures. I went back to the house standing in my garage, I was just watching this misty rain, painting a beautiful picture across my garage. My experience was relatively mild. I knew the safest place for me to be was my garage because no trees on my property or my neighbors could crush me where I was there. So we sat in the car in the garage for about an hour and a half in the height.
My property sits a little bit higher than everyone around me and we didn’t suffer near as much damage as some. I had two 100-foot pines come through my roof and I’ll have to replace the floor, but my neighbors across the street, they don’t have the front of their house anymore. But the storm cleared out of here really fast and I walked down to where the Lookout Lounge was. I saw some city folks riding around checking on people and Al Cathey, our mayor, and his son came by and helped me check in on my neighbors. I figured when I saw the Lookout right after the storm that Killer Seafood didn’t stand a chance, but I wasn’t able to get far enough to see it the first night. I just went to bed early because I had no power or a generator at that point, then went out the next morning to explore. We just started to walk down 98 and it was ugly. It’s just utter devastation.
I would like to see everyone come back. How they come back and what it looks like will depend on codes and. It’s not going to be the mom and pop shanty looking place it was, so we’re going to have to come up with some other creative ideas to make ourselves look unique again. What form will Killer Seafood take when we rebuild? I don’t know. We have two lots here so I’ve envisioned a number of different configurations on how to make it a bigger better building. Even using shipping containers to make it a rustic bohemian place. The last thing I want is for it to be a shiny stainless steel kind of place.
Despite getting up every day for 15 years, coming down and tending to the business, we were thinking about what it would be like to sell or retire. I don't need to be doing it forever. But we’ve pretty much decided now that this isn’t the way I’m going to lose the business. I’ll decide when it’s time to turn loose of it. Not the other Michael.
- Mayor of Mexico Beach -
My family moved here in 1953 from Memphis, Tennessee. My dad was Charlie Parker's wife's brother, and the Parker family was the founding family of Mexico Beach. I was raised in the Mexico Beach Grocery which is where Beachwalk is now. In 1974, we built the hardware store and have been a family owned business ever since.
I served on the city council for 4 years in the mid-80s. In 2005, I ran again for city council, and less than six months after being elected, the mayor passed away. I was the mayor pro tem at the time, so I filled in as mayor and ended up serving in that position for 10 years. I decided to take a break in 2015 but then ran again in 2017 and I'm currently serving again as the mayor.
The most endearing thing about our community is the people. We're pretty laid back and we enjoy what we have because we have the ability to express ourselves and not have to be commercialized. We have so many people that come to town, whether they are snowbirds, visitors, or residents and I personally love seeing others enjoy what our community has to offer. As a business owner that serves the public, it's neat to be able to get to know your customers. They share their stories with you and through the years, I've made so many friends because of people who come to Mexico Beach because they love our quaintness, uniqueness and charm and because we take the time to invest in our community.
I seldom pay attention to anything in the Gulf until they say it's within 48 hours of landfall. So Tuesday we went to work just like it was any other day, but by noon, they had issued mandatory evacuation orders. By that afternoon, it was fairly obvious that we would have some sort of impact, but we went on with our day and decided to make a decision the next morning. So Wednesday, again, we got up and went to work. We didn't stay long but myself, my wife, my youngest son and a friend made the decision to stay in town at our house. We stayed calm, but we had obviously never experienced a storm of that magnitude moving at that speed.
By the grace of God, our house did remarkably well. We had some damage but it was livable. As far as everything else, my son's house was destroyed, the laundromat, the hardware store, some of the warehouses, they're gone. I didn't know that Mother Nature could tear up so much in such a short amount of time. About 4pm, we went outside. It was difficult to move around and we couldn't get out even if we wanted to. I just remember thinking about the beach side of 98 and our businesses near there and just wondering how bad it was going to be. But the next day, reality set in.
My son and I walked down to the hardware store and it was really hard to wrap your mind around the devastation. The closer we got to the businesses, I remember dealing with the emotions of knowing that what we had built over almost 40 years was most likely gone. Everything we were seeing as we were walking was just in rubble. We didn't really speak much on our walk because I think we were both just shocked. It was difficult to process.
As the mayor, I found it difficult to process where and how to start. The thoughts still linger in my mind of how to find the strength to stay the course and get through the devastation. People that depend on the local leaders and government to set the pace and the standards and they need to feel good that what we had here will return. We can't just sit around and wait for someone else to do it. I'm a very positive thinker and I don't have time to get bogged down in little petty issues when we have bigger things to address. We need to get it right the first time. When we put out information, we need think through it thoroughly beforehand. I take that responsibility very seriously.
I think it's important to find some normalcy every day. We want to get things back up and going in town. Finding temporary spaces or food trucks for businesses that are capable right now to get up and running. When people are here, we want to make sure they can get information on real estate, things that are open, plan that are being made. We want to get the canal back open.
The moratorium is set to end on February 8 and I think it's critical that we do not extend that. We need to have done our due diligence and know what the building requirements will be for certain areas of town. That way, we can issue new building permits so we can see new activity. We have to get past the debris stage and I think the government plays a vital role in not getting bogged down and continuing to move forward.
We are dedicated and committed to helping get our family owned business back up. We were very fortunate that one of the warehouses stayed together well enough that my son was able to patch it up and get the hardware store back up. We're doing the best we can just like everyone else. We're survivors and we know how to roll up our sleeves and get it done.
I truly trust the pulse that I have for this community, in terms of who we are and what we want to be. It's been that way for 70 years. We absolutely could become just another cookie cutter coastal community. But the real effort comes in maintaining the charm in what we had. I'm dedicated to not change the Land Development Regulations and the Top Plan. To preserve those things that we have in place, for setbacks and height restrictions and density issues that will control the growth pattern moving forward. If you do that, then I can say without hesitation that our quality of life will not be for sale. We will preserve who we are and we will come back stronger and better than ever.