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‘It’s pretty heartbreaking’ as Panhandle towns struggle to rebuild

Tom Adams, who runs Mexico Beach Charters in the Florida Panhandle, moved his main fishing boat, the Nauti-Dogg, about 4 miles inland to save it from the wrath of Hurricane Michael.

The Category 4 storm, packing winds of 155 mph, found it anyway.

It’s been nearly two months since Michael, one of the most powerful storms to hit the United States, devastated Mexico Beach and caused significant damage in a few neighboring communities.

The Nauti-Dogg still rests at the place Adams once considered safe harbor in an inlet off the Intracoastal Waterway, where he has to trudge along a muddy path and over downed trees to get there. His boat, though, is partly submerged under about 8 feet of water.

Adams, 65, also lost a home he rents out and three cars.

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It could be at least two years before his fishing business, which once brought in about $60,000 annually, fully recovers.

“It’s pretty heartbreaking,” said Adams, who said he is still fielding calls from people who want to go fishing. He has a second, smaller boat that he could use to take people on shorter distances from different locations, but it will cost him more in fuel and time.

This is a scene in Mexico Beach, Fla., nearly two months after Hurricane Michael hit. CONTRIBUTED BY PAMELA D. SYMONETTE (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

“And even if they come, there’s nowhere for people to stay,” he said. “There are no hotels, no condos and no houses to rent.”

He plans to fall back on his inspector’s and contractor’s licenses to make ends meet.

The Panhandle is a favorite year-round destination for people from Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Canada, who crave its picturesque white sandy beaches and laid-back, nostalgic feel. A good number of Georgians have also moved to the area after retirement or have second homes there.

Today, though, it still looks like nature dropped a bomb.

Along the Highway 98 corridor in Mexico Beach, the destruction is appalling. Pine trees are snapped in half or leaning precariously toward the ground. There are no hotels, no restaurants and practically no structures that escaped total devastation or serious damage.

There are rough patches in the roadway, the result of quick repairs after the storm surge washed away the asphalt.

The businesses there were all mom and pop operations, none with the deep pockets of a large corporation.

This shows damage in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla., Oct. 13, 2018. People in Mexico Beach hope it will keep its laid-back vibe when it rebuilds. CHANG W. LEE / THE NEW YORK TIMES (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey said the town is “in full disaster mode.” His family’s hardware store, which is now operating out of a warehouse, was destroyed. “Michael took it. It’s gone,” he said. “We got our feet back under us just enough to say we’re open. The economy has come to a halt.”

He estimates that of the town’s 3,000 or so homes, most are “simply not here (anymore) or crippled to the degree they will have to be torn down.” The storm surge pushed many of the homes on the beach across Highway 98 into other homes, collapsing them into a pile of rubble.

Tourism is the business in this area, now “that’s gone. Zero.”

Many of the houses are second homes for Georgians and others. Others have retired there. People have to drive to Port St. Joe or Panama City for essentials like groceries.

“Recovery is going to come in stages,” said Cathey. “I think in about three years, you’re going to see this little town rebuilt. People here are spirited and strong-willed. We enjoy this kind of lifestyle, and we’re not going to abandon it. There’s a vibrant spirit to this city.”

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So many Georgians come here that one resident jokingly calls it “Mexico Beach, Ga.”

Steve and Cathy Johnson of Valdosta have a second home in Mexico Beach and own Mango Marley’s restaurant.

He started coming to the area during high school and college. “It just felt like a home place,” he said of the decision to buy a three-bedroom house. The hurricane ripped off the restaurant’s roof and damaged the HVAC unit. Without a roof, he’s gotten 2 inches of rain. He lost about $37,000 in food. He recently got a permit to replace the roof.

A GoFundMe account has been set up to help them rebuild. So far, it’s raised about $1,700 out of a goal of $50,000. The business also was insured.

They also recently started serving food from a food truck and with a tent for outside seating, according to the Mango Marley’s Facebook page, which used the hashtags #MangosStrong and #MexicoBeachStrong. A few employees have been able to come back to work.

“Part of our life is here,” said Steve Johnson, who doesn’t plan to leave. “I just don’t know what it’s going back to. I’m just worried that if they change the building code, a lot of people won’t be able to afford it, and that changes the landscape.”

Until the city rebuilds, however, will tourists go to other beach or vacation destinations?

Perhaps Destin or Panama City Beach? There’s always that fear.

An aerial view of the remains of the El Governor Motel in Mexico Beach Fla., on Oct. 13, 2018. The Florida Panhandle area was still beginning a long recovery from Hurricane Michael. Recovery will be slow for many of the vacation spots devastated by Hurricane Michael, but there are some options in the area for vacationers looking for a winter getaway. JOHNNY MILANO / THE NEW YORK TIMES (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Kimberly Shoaf, president of the Mexico Beach Community Development Council, lost her home in nearby Port St. Joe. She estimated that between 60 and 75 percent of the rentals are gone or unusable. She said two of the city’s four hotels were demolished by Michael, one can be salvaged and she’s not sure about the fourth. There are also two RV parks, which are home now to volunteers, displaced residents, second-home owners and workers there to help.

Tybee Island, for instance, weathered two back-to-back storms — Matthew and Irma, which hit in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

“We hope they come back, but sometimes they find another place and it becomes a new tradition,” said Julie Gonzalez, a property manager for Tybee Island Rentals, which manages about 100 properties.

She said the properties are nearly “100 percent fully refurbished” from the storms. As repairs and reopenings progress, Gonzalez and others with the company emailed clients to keep them informed.

“They were so eager to get back to their vacation spot,” she said. She added that it’s hard to really know how many vacationers went elsewhere. One of the properties hardest hit was Lighthouse Point Beach Club Condominiums. “We’ll know better this summer when all the property has been redone,” she said.

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Shane Moody, president and CEO of the Destin Chamber of Commerce, said some people may go to other parts of the nation, including South Carolina.

He doesn’t expect there to be much overlap with Destin, though. Destin is more of a family-friendly destination with lots of activities. Mexico Beach is more laid-back. Destin, which is about two hours from Mexico Beach, escaped damage from Hurricane Michael.

“Availability would be an issue for us anyway, just because we’re reaching near-capacity,” he said.

In fact, Moody takes his family there “when we really want to take a week off and go to Mexico Beach to relax.”

As of Nov. 13, Airbnb had fewer than 50 online listings in the Gulf County area for the week between Christmas and New Year’s, according to an article in The New York Times. A couple were labeled “Not available due to hurricane” or “no one can stay in my unit.”

VRBO advised travelers to contact the homeowners to check the status of property and nearby beaches and businesses.

“There’s always concern about any destination that’s been hit,” said Shoaf. “We do have a very strong following and loyal visitors, and we anticipate by next spring and summer, there will be more properties online and a couple of businesses. It won’t be a full recovery, but we hope for the best. Mexico Beach may not get the same people back, but we may get new people. Everybody wants to go to the beach. I’m not too worried about Mexico Beach bouncing back from a visitors’ standpoint, not by any means.”

The New York Times contributed to this article.

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