Four Years After Hurricane Michael, Florida City Rebuilding, Recovering

July 25, 2022
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MEXICO BEACH, Fla. — Standing on the deck of the new Driftwood Inn, 31/2 years after Hurricane Michael obliterated the old one, Tom Wood spoke of the months after the storm.

One of his daughters had urged him and his wife, Peggy, to pocket the insurance money and leave the hotel behind.

The Driftwood was a nest of splintered wood and ruined history then: pictures, receipts, mattresses, tables, chairs, all tumbled together and streaked with mold. A 14-foot flood and 150 mph winds had dismantled Mexico Beach, turning the gulf-front oasis into a 3-mile field of rubble.

Now 82, Tom was addressing a few dozen guests for the hotel’s ceremonial reopening the first weekend of June. The deck where they sat was 8 feet off the ground, part of a building perched atop 97 concrete and rebar columns — higher to avoid another flood, sturdier to blunt the wind.

Mexico Beach was home to four hotels and motels before Michael. The Driftwood, three stories high with 23 rooms, is the first to come back, a symbol of the city’s ongoing recovery. It is taller, stronger — and more expensive.

Rebuilding from Michael cost about $13 million, according to Tom, more than double the roughly $5 million they got from insurance.

Purple martins flitted and ducked into birdhouses off the deck. Small waves rolled into the white sand. Tom, clutching a microphone, wore a straw hat, pearl earring and Hawaiian shirt.

These first guests were not paying. They were people the Woods wanted to thank — architects and builders, family and friends (old and new) who sent supplies or picked through the wreckage.

Behind Tom, on the western edge of town, the trees were shadows of Michael, bare and bent, silhouetted by the fading sun.

The Woods had not left.

“I want to build a monument to the town of Mexico Beach,” Tom said, thinking back. “I want to leave a legacy.

“And we have.”

At daybreak on Oct. 10, 2018, Mexico Beach was a vision of old Florida. Concrete-block duplexes, level with the sand, lined roads that ended in the dunes. There was a coffee shop, a hardware store, a pier.

By nightfall, the city had been shattered. The storm ripped off roofs and floated them hundreds of feet inland, onto the two lanes of U.S. 98. The Woods’ hotel hung in a state of semi-collapse, awaiting a wrecking crew to deliver the final punch.

They hadn’t known what rebuilding would cost. $3 million? $10 million? Their bill soared as months dragged and the pandemic made workers and materials scarcer. Tom and Peggy paid for blueprints of the new inn, which their daughter Shawna said “looks like the old Driftwood grew up.” They paid to keep a few people on staff. They paid for concrete in the parking lot, metal on the roof and tile on the floors. They paid for every chair, sink and toilet.

The family sold other properties — an office building in Atlanta, a pizza shop in Mexico Beach — to pump more money into the inn.

Around the Driftwood’s skeleton, the city’s real estate market, as in the rest of Florida, started to boom.

Today, bright new multi-story homes, lifted on stilts, soar above vacant lots sprouting weeds. Vacation rental signs hang out front.

Mexico Beach hasn’t regained its pier, but the marina is flush with boaters. The city has a gas station, too. And a Subway.

The inn sits on five beachfront lots. A half-mile down the road, a single vacant lot is on the market for $1.2 million.

“There used to be a home here,” the listing reads, “so water and sewer tap fees have been paid.”

The “For Sale” signs and open land brim with possibilities — for some.

Every longtime resident knows friends who were forced out. They didn’t have the money, the insurance or in some cases the stamina to slog through rebuilds.

The city had always attracted out-of-towners looking for second homes, mostly from Georgia. Now people come from farther away and rent to vacationers until they can retire. Some pay cash.

Shawna, 56, who will run the new Driftwood, said there are no affordable homes for store clerks and bartenders. She believes that’s why she can’t fill two housekeeper positions or find a part-time desk worker.

Her own daughter, unable to cover rent, has moved 25 minutes away to Callaway.

“We’re no longer a sleepy little village,” Tom said. “We got so much publicity after the hurricane.”

The new Driftwood’s doors are heavy. The glass is thick. Slick, modern furniture fills every room, instead of hand-picked antiques. Touchscreen pads have replaced keys.

Summer rooms will cost between $325 and $425, about twice as much as before the storm. When Shawna posted the rates on Facebook, some people commented that they couldn’t wait. Others said they couldn’t afford it.

After the rebuild, Peggy, 81, said this is what the family has to do. They’ll miss some of the regulars who made the Driftwood so special. They bought the original inn for $138,000 in 1975, when it had only eight units.

They still don’t know how much their flood and wind insurance will cost, or property taxes. Liability insurance is up to $17,000 a year, around double what they used to pay, Shawna said.

The last few years, Tom and Peggy’s kids fretted that their parents wouldn’t live to see the hotel reopen.

Peggy was in a wheelchair for the first weekend after breaking her hip. Tom bounced around, shaking hands and leaning on his polished wood cane. He sipped Diet Cokes and Coors Lights, noting imperfections, like a stain where water dripped on the siding. He called for help when the elevator broke down.

Bart, 59, thought his dad looked younger, as if the challenge of rebuilding had given Tom life.

A core group of Mexico Beach residents showed up during the opening weekend to fete the Driftwood’s rebirth with heaping plates of gumbo, shrimp, oysters and cake.

Though the city — and hotel — have changed dramatically, the people who managed to stay don’t talk so fearfully about Mexico Beach losing its charm anymore.

“If people live here, they’ve got the heartbeat,” said Cathey Parker Hobbs, a descendant of a city founder.

“You can’t hate people for taking an opportunity to come in and find their dream,” said Michael Scoggins, co-owner of Killer Seafood, a restaurant down the street that serves po’boys out of a custom trailer bought after the storm.

Bart looked around the Driftwood’s spacious events room, decorated with hanging wood boats. Above the gumbo table, he spotted a model schooner he built when he was about 14.

“There’s still a lot of history here,” he said.

The Woods’ fingerprints are everywhere, at least for those who know where to look: fanciful white cornices, paintings by Tom, a whimsical birdhouse collection.

“I’m hoping the Driftwood can create that friendly feeling,” Peggy said, like a bridge to the Mexico Beach that existed before Michael.

Fifty years ago, the Driftwood was a dream.

Peggy left Atlanta for Mexico Beach, where her children couldn’t skip school without their mom finding out.

Bart, Shawna and Brandy pitched in by cleaning rooms.

Brandy, who pushed her parents to sell after Michael, was tidying up for opening weekend when her own kids remarked that she had come full circle.

At 55, on the back end of a career in corporate America, Brandy looks forward to organizing events at the new Driftwood, such as bingo nights and bachelorette parties. She and her husband were married at the old inn.

The Wood children all have homes in Mexico Beach. Christmases, they’ll spend at the hotel.

On Saturday of opening weekend, Brandy woke about 5:30 a.m. and drove to the Driftwood. A woman sat in the lobby with her dog, waiting for coffee. Brandy apologized.

She lined up reclining chairs, $475 apiece, along the deck and dabbed at wine stains from the night before. She laid out breakfast.

Brandy looked over the beach and watched puffy clouds pad the horizon. She felt the gulf breeze. She stared at the water, and she didn’t see a ripple.

Photo: Tom Wood, owner of the Driftwood Inn, at the hotel’s reopening weekend, four years after it was destroyed by Hurricane Michael. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

Topics Catastrophe Natural Disasters Florida Hurricane Numbers

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