Mexico Beach, FL
|February, 2019 - Mexico Beach, Florida
You watch it unfold on television, like a soap opera that isn't real.
It's happening 3,000 miles away from your daily life, so after the initial horror and sadness passes, you do your dishes, go grocery shopping, stop by the bakery for coffee. Life goes on in your little part of the world.
But the horror and sadness remains 3,000 miles away.
We watched as Hurricane Michael made landfall on the tiny town of Mexico Beach, Florida on October 10, 2018. It did so as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 155 miles per hour, making it the strongest to ever hit land on the Florida Panhandle.
In the days that followed, the true devastation became even more evident as journalists, first responders and a few residents began posting photos and video of what remained. And it wasn't much.
After a couple of days, I had to stop watching.
Life went on; we made plans to head south in the fifth wheel as usual. To the Gulf Coast region this time as we'd never ventured that far to the southeast.
For the month of February, we pulled into Wildwood Golf & RV Resort just south of Tallahassee. Reg was thrilled because the monthly rate included golf. He began playing regularly with a group of local golfers, and talk inevitably turned to the hurricane. It had been four months since Michael hit, and some of them still hadn't been able to make the drive south to see for themselves how hard Mexico Beach was hit. It was too close to home.
So we made the drive for them. I had to see for myself the progress that was being made.
A few months earlier I had applied to volunteer with a local organization that was helping to clear debris, stock warehouses, do whatever they could to help. When I finally heard back from them, I was told thanks, but we have reached capacity and can't take on any more help.
Good, I thought. That means things are in full swing and the rebuilding has begun.
We made the two-hour drive south slowly, in part because you could see damage from the hurricane much sooner, as chunks of US 98 were missing and debris filled ditches in sections along the road.
The first major damage was in Port St. Joe which is only about 10 miles from Mexico Beach. It faired only moderately better.
As we approached Mexico Beach, I expected to see heavy equipment, construction crews, FEMA trailers, people clearing debris, hear the sound of hammers, drills, backhoes. But there was little of that.
As the rain poured down, we drove past what felt like a ghost town.
In front of a few buildings there were crews clearing debris into the back of dump trucks, but the rest of the town seemed still. Like it had almost given up.
Sitting on some of the cement pads that once held homes were RVs. Nowhere did I see a gathering of trailers to house those displaced by the storm. Maybe I wasn't looking in the right spot.
The few signs of rebuilding we saw included ACE Hardware, a coffee shop and a small restaurant. Also, the Governor Hotel apparently was determined to be structurally sound, so was beginning to clean up the area around it and fix the damages it sustained.
After the insurance claims are completed and people make the decision to return - or not - to Mexico Beach, hopefully things will move at a faster pace. The initial clean up must have been horrific and thankfully the streets are clear for work to continue.
There is no doubt that the little beach town will never be the same. Hopefully the spirit of those who lived through the worst will persevere and maybe, just maybe, it will be better than ever.