A drive through Mexico Beach tells visitors all they need to know about what happened in the small coastal town: large empty slabs of land, no gas stations, no sit-down restaurants and lots of food trailers set up.
(TNS) — One year ago, Category 5 Hurricane Michael hit the Florida panhandle.
It was the storm no one was prepared for.
“You can’t prepare for a Hurricane Michael,” said lifelong Mexico Beach resident Buddy Boyett. “It was apocalyptic... It was like a bomb was dropped on us."
Panhandle communities, both coastal and inland, are still facing challenges a year after Michael passed through.
A drive through Mexico Beach tells visitors everything they need to know about what happened in the small coastal town: large empty slabs of land, no gas stations, no beach pier, no sit-down restaurants and lots of food trailers set up.
The major artery of the population 1,200 town, U.S. Highway 98, remains closed a year after Michael.
“We look crippled,” said Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey. “About 75 percent of our city was destroyed. You don’t come back from that in one year.”
The task of recovering Mexico Beach as well as all the surrounding communities has been Herculean, with FEMA spending $55 million in recovery just in September alone, the emergency management agency reported.
That being the case, progress has been made, Cathey said.
Most of the cleanup has been taken care of. Sewer and water infrastructure has returned. About 50 new building permits were approved Monday, and by the start of 2020 two buildings containing a combined 100 rental units will be ready for business allowing tourism to resume as well as giving construction workers a place to stay.
“We’re putting energy into moving forward and rebuilding,” Cathey said. “The volume of devastation is not something we will forget, but it’s not something we talk about a lot about, either.”
On Oct. 8, 2018, Michael was a Category 2 hurricane with maximum sustained winds reaching 98 mph and was passing by Cuba, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The eye of the storm was decaying and development paused, the NHC said in its report of the storm.
The lull didn’t last.
As Michael turned toward North Florida the storm rapidly intensified, surprising meteorologists and residents caught in the path.
Maximum sustained winds escalated to 175 mph just before making landfall on Oct. 10 at Tyndall Air Force Base, 15 miles north of Mexico Beach, the NHC said.
Michael’s winds slide down to 161 mph as it turned Mexico Beach’s pleasant beachside into a picture of desolation.
It was the first Category 5 to make landfall in the United States since Hurricane Andrew slammed into South Florida in 1992.
Storm surge along the panhandle was recorded between 9 to 14 feet above the ground level in Bay and Gulf counties, with the highest elevation seen at Mexico Beach Pier where waters were above 15 feet. The powerfully high waves easily washed away coastal highways.
A total of 1,584 buildings were reported damaged, and 809 were deemed destroyed. Bay County suffered huge devastation with more than 45,000 structures damaged with more than 1,500 destroyed including severe damage to two hospitals, the NHC said.
Michael caused $25 billion worth of damage. It was directly responsible for 16 deaths and for 43 indirect deaths, all in Florida. Indirect deaths included falls during the post-storm clean up, traffic accidents, and medical issues compounded by the hurricane.
Boyett was hunting in Texas with his grandson two days before the storm hit. His wife, Pat, called him and asked him to come home when Michael had developed into a Category 3.
“There wasn’t any time to really prepare by the time I got back home,” he said. “We grabbed heirlooms, pictures; anything we could get in my truck.”
The couple drove to Havana, Florida - a suburb of Tallahassee.
Boyett owned three properties in Mexico Beach; one was his childhood home built in 1936. The only thing left of it after Michael was the front door step, Boyett said.
Driving around town after the storm was not only made difficult by fallen terrain but also was dangerous.
Boyett recalls seeing boats floating in parking lots and highways. Parts of the Mexico Beach pier floating down Highway 98.
Even a year after making that drive through Mexico Beach, Boyett can still remember the smell of death entering his truck. Rotting marine life was scattered around the town.
The dead animals had previously been killed by a high concentration of red tide afflicting the coast of the panhandle.
“Before Michael, the canal was carpeted in dead fish,” Boyett said. “The storm did a good job of clearing the canal, by moving it all over the roads.”
The roof of his second property, a condo, was blown clean off. The stairwell leading to it was covered in debris and in order to pass, Boyett crawled under a low gap to get through.
The front room and garage of his third home by the beach were obliterated. Boyett was surprised to see furniture inside, but was confused when he didn’t recognize it; eventually he figured out it had blown in from his neighbor’s home 500 yards away.
Two of Boyett’s homes are still gone. Construction costs are high; one of the contributing factors is the lack of infrastructure to support out-of-town workers. But Boyett’s condo is almost back up and running, plus he’s hoping to get a ticket of occupancy for it in the next three weeks.
One of the largest problems affecting recovery is the slow process in receiving insurance claims, Boyett said.
As of July, insurance companies have yet to pay about 15 percent of claims made from Hurricane Michael on the panhandle, according to The Associated Press. At the time, this included 21,000 claims; Boyett being one of them still. The AP reported that Florida law requires insurance companies to pay claims within 90 days of being filed. Boyett is in communication with a lawyer to help facilitate the process.
“Things are coming together. We recently got water and sewer lines back about a month ago. We were without it for about 11 months,” Boyett said. “Everyone down here is pretty resilient. It’s not our first rodeo but we never had a rodeo like this.”
About 50 miles northeast of Mexico Beach is the small inland town Blountstown. And while it was far enough from the coast to not experience storm surge, the effects of the 2018 hurricane can still be seen in 2019.
There are still blue tarps over roofs and remnants of buildings that have yet to be demolished. Michael’s winds tore down power lines and poles leaving the city without electricity for eight days. A complete replacement of the Blountstown electrical distribution system was necessary.
The trees surrounding Blountstown were uprooted and blown down like playing cards, although it’s the trees that provided the town with protection from the strong winds, sparing it from even more damage, said Blountstown City Manager Traci Hall. The city spent more than $10 million on cleaning up forest debris, Hall said.
The lack of woodland protection became a big concern at the start of the 2019 hurricane season when Hurricane Barry formed in July in the Gulf of Mexico right by Florida’s panhandle.
“Oh, there was a lot praying that week that [Barry] wouldn’t come here,” Hall said. “We had a game plan set in place, but with so many of those trees gone, Michael left us compromised. And yes, a lot of buildings here stood up to 155 mph winds, but I’m not sure they’ll do that again.”
A collective sigh of relief was exhaled by Blountstown and the rest of the panhandle after being spared by Category 1 Barry.
Blountstown has a lot to recover before it’s fully back on its feet but the clean up is over, and good things are coming. Reconstruction has begun for many buildings. Plans to build a new police station and city hall are in effect.
“We can be sad, and relive that day again but we need to look toward to the future,” Hall said.
One way the town has put Michael behind it is with the action seen underneath Friday night lights during Blountstown High football games.
The bleachers surrounding the football field were among the infrastructural damages created by Michael but they were fixed in time for the start of the 2019 football season.
Hall’s 16-year-old son is the starting center for the Blountstown Tigers and she’s always in attendance.
“This town is a Friday night lights culture. We love our hometown football,” she said. “This community is filled with strong people and hardworking people. I think we’ve recovered through the worst of it. We survived. We’ve stopped to breathe, and now, we move forward.”
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