One month later, the survivors of a direct hit from one of the worst hurricanes in U.S. history are still living in fear. They fear being forgotten. They also fear never being “The Forgotten Coast” again.
Residents of Mexico Beach are shell-shocked, devastated, tired and increasingly worried. They are worried their beautiful little area of Florida’s Gulf Coast will be forgotten by media that already moved on to the next big story, by relief workers and volunteers who must get back to their “regular” lives. Meanwhile Panhandle residents still live in tents or tarp-covered homes. In many cases there are no jobs to return to, no “regular” life at all.
As long-time residents struggle to survive day-to-day, they also struggle with fears their part of the Florida Panhandle, lovingly referred to as “The Forgotten Coast,” may never be the same again. They are saddened the last remnants of what they call “Old Florida” are gone, literally washed and blown away. All the quirky little things that made Mexico Beach so unique and charming now sit on a giant debris pile that reaches to the sky and covers acres of land. Many residents fear Mexico Beach’s identity will be forgotten in the rush to rebuild and sacrificed to the staggering amount of money developers can wave in front of beaten down, desperate survivors.
Long-time residents defiantly say they will rebuild. They won’t sell out to the developers who are already swooping into the area, looking for bargains. City leaders swear they will stand firm and cling tightly to the strict rules that kept major developers, chain stores and tourist traps from taking over this area known for its quintessential Old Florida charm.
Residents like Chip Blackburn, the captain of a charter fishing boat, hope that’s true, but just don’t know what the future holds.
“I know they want to keep it the same,” he said, “ but money talks.”
Blackburn, who lost it all in three past hurricanes actually weathered Michael well, relatively speaking. He stayed in Tallahassee as the hurricane hit. He returned to Mexico Beach to find water marks on his walls where four foot of water filled the bottom level of his home, but it still stood. Before the storm, he took his charter fishing boat, “Miss Mary,” up river and she too survived.
Despite these blessings, Blackburn fears it could be three to five years before he’s back in business.
The marina where he moored his boat is a colossal mess. A Jeep is halfway submerged in the canal. Large boats sit halfway out on the bank. Lumber, trees, wires, roofs, household items, any and everything imaginable litter the waterway and the waters just off the coast.
“There’s no telling what’s trapped just under the water,” Blackburn said as he surveyed the damage.
The destruction stands in sharp contrast to a still inviting white sand beach. Where homes once perched on stilts, foolishly thinking they could survive Nature’s wrath, there is nothing but sand. The home sites are wiped clean, like a freshly shaken Etch-a-Sketch. The Gulf waters, which are once again tranquil and beautiful, show no sign of their brute force and the havoc they caused just a few weeks ago.
The fresh sea breeze can’t clear the stench of rotting food and animals. Blackburn’s brother, Mike, said for the first three weeks after the storm, the only birds were buzzards. The smell of gas is also heavy and the once shady and colorful town is now brown and barren.
“Even if they get it all cleared, where will people stay who want to go charter fishing?” Blackburn said. There are no hotels, no rental homes, no restaurants— nothing to draw and serve vacationers.
“What worries me most is how do I keep Curtis employed if there’s no work?,” Blackburn said. Curtis Cain is Blackburn’s first mate and good friend. Cain lost absolutely everything in the hurricane and now Blackburn is worried about keeping him employed until the charters return.
He’s also scared old time residents and small business owners can’t afford to rebuild if new building codes are enforced like in other places like South Florida.
But the devastation is evidence of Mexico Beach’s complete ineffectiveness in standing up to such a powerful storm.
“It’s like living in a landfill, now,” he said.
“We take it one step at a time. We help each other. We clean up one thing and then another and another.
“Bad stuff happens everywhere,” Blackburn said, “but we’ll clean it up.”
Like most of Mexico Beach’s residents, he’s counting on others to not forget the suffering still happening in the Panhandle and to realize what a long struggle this is. He’s counting on the toughness and resiliency of the hearty locals. He also hopes, despite deep fears and a nagging feeling of inevitability, that promises will be kept to retain the individuality, charm and history that made “The Forgotten Coast” such a special part of Florida.