Places like Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel, shaken to their foundations when Hurricane Ian swept through, can learn a lot from the rebuilding efforts in Mexico Beach after Hurricane Michael steamrolled the Bay County town in 2018.
Homes in Mexico Beach are built to withstand winds of up to 140 mph, they’re built higher, and they’re built stronger. Still, more than four years later, the town isn’t what it was before Michael. It won’t ever be what it was. But the people who live there won’t let the charm of their coastal lifestyle wash away with the sand.
For the past 22 years, Jack Mullen and his wife have called 121 Miramar Drive home. That home has looked a little different since Oct. 10, 2018.
Everything, where my house was, it’s all gone,” Mullen said. “Everything blew away. House, furniture, all that stuff.”
All that stuff blew into the canal right across the street. Hurricane Michael destroyed everything, stole everything.
“My love car, 1973 Volkswagen Thing, candy-apple red… was laying in the canal,” Mullen said. “It looked like a giant had kind of beer-can crunched that up.
But, eventually, Mullen was able to live under a roof again. More than four years later, he’s still settling into his new normal.
“We built a modular home that actually gets built in the factory, and then they ship it and put it together,” Mullen said.
Jack Mullen’s Mexico Beach home. (Credit: WINK News)
His new four walls were shipped down from Georgia on four different 18-wheelers; it was easier than building a home from the ground up. In Mexico Beach, there are not many places for workers to stay. There’s not even a grocery store for people to shop at.
“We keep thinking that someone will start that ball rolling,” said Mayor Al Cathey. “But, as of yet, we don’t… we don’t have any.”
Cathey is skeptical that Mexico Beach can support a chain store like Winn-Dixie or Publix. He has been in office since before Michael and has lived in the town for 70 years. A change in the charm won’t happen under his watch, and he believes the roughly 800 registered voters in Mexico Beach likewise want to see it maintained.
“We’re a beach town,” Mullen said. “My opinion: We don’t need a Walmart here.”
But 75% of homes in the little fishing village are non-homestead. They’re either second homes or short-term rentals that pack people on the beach and drive the city’s economy.
Those are the people who don’t want to drive around 30 minutes to get groceries.
Cathey has had investors try to come in and buy property.
Mexico Beach home. (Credit: WINK News)
“They saw it from a money perspective; I saw it from a charm, character, quaint uniqueness perspective that we weren’t going to give up,” Cathey said. “Because, you know, just the quality of life changes when you do that.”
Cathey says those offers weren’t hard to turn down. But, when you turn your eye toward the Gulf, there are still empty slabs and pilings standing that only support salty air.
A memory of the homes that were washed away in late 2018.
“The slabs, they’re like a tombstone,” Cathey said. “That’s how I feel about it.”
Many of Jack Mullen’s neighbors have not rebuilt.
“I miss my neighbors,” Mullen said. “They were good folks. We knew them all.”
But the people along Florida’s forgotten coast know the forward movement of Mexico Beach will go at its own pace as they rebuild into a more resilient community with a charm no storm can erode.
“When you have 85% of your city destroyed, you got to have a little heart, you got to have some stamina, and you got to stay the course,” Cathey said.