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'Struggling Here With Just Living' In The Aftermath Of Hurricane Michael

In early October, Hurricane Michael devastated Florida's Panhandle, leaving beachside communities in ruins. The cost of removing debris from Mexico Beach, including its canals, is expected to top $25 million.
Greg Allen
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

More than three months after Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle, communities now are struggling with the storm's financial aftermath. In Mexico Beach, where Michael's 155 mile-per-hour winds flattened more than three-quarters of the homes, just removing the debris threatens to bankrupt the city.

On Highway 98, the beach road, nearly every house on the ocean side is gone. Collapsed home sites and piles of debris wait to be bulldozed away.

Officials say debris removal alone is likely to cost more than $25 million, more than ten times the town's annual budget. "We're past the needing water and tarps," says Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey, "But now we're at where the rubber hits the road."

Cathey says Mexico Beach will need an additional $3 million to replace portions of its sewer and water systems. Although FEMA will reimburse the town for much of those costs eventually, it may not be for a year or more. Making matters worse, the storm has destroyed the town's tax base.

"We had roughly 2,700 homes," Cathey says, "and there's less than 500 standing." And many of those standing are uninhabitable. All of which raises questions about how long the town can remain solvent.

Cathey has lived in Mexico Beach since 1953 when his family moved here. His family's hardware store, now run by his son, is one of just 8 businesses that have reopened since Michael. He says the store now sells just the basics, things like plywood, gun nails and plumbing supplies.

More than three months after Hurricane Michael, many severely damaged homes still await demolition.
Greg Allen / NPR
The Florida Channel
More than three months after Hurricane Michael, many severely damaged homes still await demolition.

"There's no sense stocking some of the seasonal things that we had for summer," Cathey says. "We don't need umbrellas and chairs."

Mexico Beach was a quiet seaside community, dependent on tourists and summer rentals. Three-quarters of the houses here were second homes, mostly rented to visitors looking for a beach without the nightlife and attractions available elsewhere.

Cathey says that old Mexico Beach is now gone. He rode out the storm in his home several blocks from the water. When he went through the town afterwards, he says it was unrecognizable.

"There were no landmarks," he says. "I lost track of where I was. After 65 years, I lost track of what street I was looking at."

There's a lot of people that are struggling here with just living. It's not the food anymore; it's not the water anymore. It's trying to figure out how to put your life back together.

Cathey believes that, with help from the state and federal government, Mexico Beach will be able to pay its bills and rebuild. He says local officials will fight to maintain the town's low-key character with zoning and height restrictions. But there's no doubt that a lot of new construction will be going on here over the next several years and that many longtime residents will leave.

72-year-old resident Don Tilley's house was flooded, but it can be renovated — not that he wants to. "This wasn't on my bucket list," he says. "But there's no choice." Tilley says he's staying, but many of his neighbors aren't. "There's a lot of people walking away," he says. "Some people don't have the money to rebuild. And some people ... they just don't want to mess with it."

Right now there's a moratorium on rebuilding. Local officials are studying FEMA flood maps and discussing a new construction code that's likely to increase the cost of rebuilding homes that were destroyed.

Even for those whose homes survived Hurricane Michael largely intact, recovery is just beginning.

I first met Patricia Hendricks in Mexico Beach the day after the storm. Her home was mostly okay, except for the large pine trees that fell on her house, punching holes in her roof. On a recent return visit, she was clearly doing a lot better. She's back at work, teaching high school English in the nearby town of Port St. Joe. She expected her roof would be replaced by the end of the week.

But there's still much to do. She pulls back plastic sheeting so we can walk into her bedroom where most of the storm damage occurred. A work crew has already removed soggy drywall, gutting the interior down to the studs.

Hendricks says it will be many months or a year until she gets her house repaired. The towering pines, cedars and oak trees that she loved and which surrounded her home are gone.

But many others in town have it much worse. "There's a lot of people that are struggling here with just living," Hendricks says. "It's not the food anymore; it's not the water anymore. It's trying to figure out how to put your life back together."

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has been to Mexico Beach twice since taking office in January. He's pledged to aid the city in its recovery — starting with nearly $3 million in state funds to help with the cost of debris removal.

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As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.