(TNS) - Reduced to little more than rubble and collapsed trees, infighting among officials along the forgotten coast in the wake of Hurricane Michael escalated to the point the sitting city manager attempted to fire the police chief.
As the dust settles in the town of Mexico Beach from taking a direct hit from the most powerful storm to hit the Panhandle, numerous outsiders have descended to assist in the recovery effort. But in the immediate aftermath, tensions ran high in City Hall.
Mexico Beach Police Chief Andrew Kelly said the source of controversy was whether survivors should be removed from the decimated city as rebuilding efforts began. Kelly said, instead, he wanted food distribution stations brought into Mexico Beach so that survivors could begin to piece together their lives.
"To the people of this town, salvaging a little league picture of their grandson means more than possessions," Kelly said. "I thought those people should stay and have food while they begin to put things back together. I made that decision and I'd do it again."
Kelly said that the rift was specifically between himself and interim City Manager Tanya Castro, a former council member. Following the storm, Castro sought to close the borders to the town, Kelly said, and only allow in vetted utility workers and clean-up crews in order to prevent looting.
When asked for a comment, Castro indicated that the performance of law enforcement prompted the need to call in reinforcements. She did not directly address the reasons for seeking to have the police chief fired.
"Protecting our citizens and their property is our first goal and will always be the most important duty to our citizens," she wrote in an email. "If I feel like we're not doing a good job, I'm going to call in reinforcements. We are 100 percent focused on response and recovery right now, and we don't have a lot of time to deal with anything that's not about rebuilding our infrastructure and our long-term recovery."
Kelly said his decisions during and immediately after the storm also stoked tensions between some of the city's lawmakers and himself.
Kelly said his eight officers knocked on more than 280 doors in the two days before Hurricane Michael's landfall in the Panhandle. The morning of Oct. 10, he ordered his men to evacuate as the historically unprecedented storm set sights directly on the small beach town. After contacting the almost 40 people choosing the remain, Kelly followed behind and fled as Hurricane Michael bore down on Mexico Beach.
"We gave the people permanent markers to write their name and social security number on their arms for identification," Kelly said Friday and noted the decision to evacuate came out of concern for his officers' safety. "This city did not have a building structurally sound to withstand that storm. That's why we held out until the last minute."
Standing among strewn helmets, boots and oxygen tanks of the nearby fire department, Kelly pointed at the former police department — a trailer. It had been manhandled by the 155 mph winds of Hurricane Michael, thrown off its foundation and had its windows busted out. The storm surge had washed a Mini Cooper up along the backside of the facility from some residence yet to be determined.
Kelly said all first responders left the town and agreed to meet back in what was left about five hours after the storm passed to begun search and rescue. He contacted he Bay County Sheriff's Office to let them know his officers would return after the storm, Kelly said.
One of his officers, Kelly said, walked from Callaway back to Mexico Beach with a chainsaw and began search and recovery efforts, finding three of the people who stayed behind dead in their homes.
A couple days later, Kelly made his way back to account for his men, who'd been conducting foot patrols and operating the police station from a picnic table. By that time, BCSO and other outside law enforcement agencies had joined the Mexico Beach officers, so Kelly gave his men two days off, he said.
"My officers come first," Kelly said. "After all they had been through, I decided to give them time to take take care of themselves."
As they left Mexico Beach, some officers took patrol cars in hopes of keeping them from being damaged. Four were lost to the storm, including one in Lynn Haven a tree fell on.
As of Friday, the police department and fire department were operating out a trailer on a vacant lot. Cots filled the small interior for officers to rest.
Kelly said other agencies have donated uniforms and the Florida Highway Patrol contributed with patrol cars. However, the future of both agencies is murky with about 95 percent of the tax base destroyed in the storm.
Mayor Al Cathey said the city only had about $1 million dollars in reserves to pay salaries. Even before the storm, the city had been trying to get Bay County to absorb the cost of the fire department. The county declined because Mexico Beach would downgrade their rating and eventually cost county residents more for insurance.
"When the dust settles, we're going to have to take a hard look at our financial situation," Cathey said. "We need emergency personnel, but we need to address how we're going to pay for those jobs. We can't close up shop, though. The spirit of this tiny town is strong."
One outside disaster recovery firm, Atkins Engineering, has come to the city to expedite recovery. They have arranged for the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the canal, the Florida Department of Transportation to lead the debris removal and will be vetting volunteers and contractors once the removal phase is complete and the recovery phase begins in the coming days.
Kelly said he, too, hopes the police department remains under the city's control. He said they will be starting from scratch.
"This town is resilient," Kelly said. "I'm sure the city administration will maintain the integrity of our department. This is a close community. We live here, and we know everybody we come in contact with. It would be a shame if we lost our police force to this storm."
©2018 The News Herald (Panama City, Fla.)
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