MEXICO BEACH — The Woods had a rule for surviving hurricanes.
A Category 1 or 2 was no reason to panic. They could ride it out in a room at the Driftwood Inn, waves seething outside their back windows.
If forecasters called for anything stronger, it was time to go.
Peggy and Tom Wood had spent most of their lives in Mexico Beach and no storm ever seriously damaged the Inn. They bought it in 1975 when it was just eight units, barn red and seafoam green with neon lights that sparked in the rain. They raised three children there and remodeled, adding rooms when they could until they had 24 across two stories and a couple of outbuildings, looking over the Gulf of Mexico.
The Driftwood featured crisp white walls, a red roof and gables — a gingerbread-beach-Victorian that became a landmark in a small town that fancied itself the defender of a bygone American era.
The snowbirds arrived in October, staying months and sharing Christmases like family. Sometimes hurricanes popped up around the same season, unwelcome guests taking wobbly aim at the Panhandle.
The Woods only had to evacuate the Inn five or six times. When they first heard of Hurricane Michael, they figured they’d retreat to Room 3 again, huddling with Woodie, the Driftwood’s loping Great Dane, and JoJo, a macaw who squawked “Hello” and let the woman in charge of reservations cradle him like a baby.
Forecasters described the storm as a Category 1 two days before landfall, perhaps on its way to becoming a 2. They soon changed their tone, warning of sudden intensification, a possible major Category 3 or even 4 hurricane slicing toward Mexico Beach.
Peggy, 78, and her daughter Shawna, 54, scrambled to persuade the last guests to leave. They gathered the computers and loaded Woodie into the car while JoJo, the bird, stayed at the Driftwood.
They drove north to Alabama, leaving 43 years behind.
VIDEO: THE WOODS RECALL THE DRIFTWOOD AND HURRICANE MICHAEL
• • •
Peggy and Tom were at first a novelty in Mexico Beach, two “art-eests” from Atlanta.
They had met at Ringling College, an art school in Sarasota. He remembers she was pretty, and available. She remembers he had a car and could drive to the beach.
The Inn began as a lark, a $138,000 investment their friends thought was a robbery, but they hoped to make it a home. They wanted to raise their children in a small town, citing vague concerns over drugs and crime in the city.
They had no customers or experience running a motel. Tom’s earnings from his ad agency about six hours north carried them through the first year.
The kids — Bart, Shawna and Brandy — hated driving 45 minutes to the nearest mall or movie theater. They cleaned rooms and avoided telling friends where they lived. Hot dog roasts on the beach were fun, though, and they enjoyed meeting some of the new vacationers.
Peggy and Tom reshaped the motel, sometimes on a whim. The previous owner had bulldozed the sea oats, convinced visitors liked plain sand, but the Woods trucked in palm trees and strange plants that gardeners told them would never survive near saltwater. They plopped gargoyle and mermaid sculptures throughout the garden and built a mossy gazebo where customers reclined on swings and chatted in the breeze.
“It was always a love affair,” Tom said.
• • •
The Woods and the Inn slowly emerged as a staple in Mexico Beach, no longer just an oddity.
They started an annual art and wine festival. They planted palm trees along U.S. 98 and helped organize the Fourth of July fireworks. Peggy convinced the trash collectors to help her haul in the town’s first Christmas tree. They bought other properties and hosted movie nights and potlucks.
By high school, Shawna and her siblings were bringing friends over to help with chores.“Every kid on Mexico Beach helped us paint the Driftwood, weed the Driftwood, clean rooms at the Driftwood,” she said.
GALLERY: THE DRIFTWOOD INN, BEFORE THE STORM
The Driftwood Inn before Hurricane Michael
After their children moved out, the Woods converted their bedrooms into rental units.
The average guest booked for three months. The Woods charged $1,300 per month for a room, or anywhere from $125 to $220 a night depending on the space and season. People joked that the only way to secure a spot during the snowbird months was for someone to die.
Visitors tucked dog treats in their pockets for Woodie, who laid her head on the counter to be pet. JoJo pecked jewelry from unsuspecting women in the entryway.
Peggy lived in a sunny apartment on the second floor, where she stacked gardening books on white shelves and drifted to a deck over the beach at night. She hung Tom’s paintings. He split time between Mexico Beach and Atlanta.
Eventually, their children returned, buying beach houses of their own.
• • •
When Hurricane Michael crashed ashore Oct. 10, lacerating the power grid and cell phone service and leaving four people dead in Mexico Beach, Peggy and Shawna were hunkered down 100 miles away just over the border of Alabama.
They searched for videos of the town and found one showing Toucan’s, a popular restaurant, exploding like shrapnel in the wind.
The Woods struggled to find any clear images of the Driftwood. One shot from a helicopter seemed to show the back of their building blown out by wind or water or both.
What they found days later was much worse.
A piano blocked the front door amid a slew of other debris. They climbed over piles of rubble trying to assess what they’d lost.
The dunes were gone. The plants were gone. The cottages and outbuildings were gone. They couldn’t find any pieces of the chapel Tom had built, where couples used to renew their vows. The old record player inside and spools with Thomas Edison’s voice were gone. Tom’s sculptures were gone.
The doorways of the rooms in the front of the main building were plugged with mattresses and box springs, left by rushing water that made a line where it crested at the doorknobs on the second floor. The ground was littered with a bizarre mishmash — a portrait of a grandson, VHS tapes, a custom Driftwood calendar from 2002, a white phone ripped from its cord embedded in the sand.
It was as if almost everything the Woods owned had collapsed in an avalanche of time.
“Can you imagine that you worked for 50 years building something and in three or four hours the whole thing just went away?” Peggy said later. “Just how did this all happen to me so fast?”
Shawna and Amy Hay, the reservationist at the Inn, began to dig. Amy refused to leave until she knew for sure what happened to JoJo the macaw.
Shawna wished she had taken the bird to her house before the storm, but the Woods didn’t know it would be so bad. Fitting JoJo in a car was difficult, and he didn’t always get along with Woodie.
Amy was shoveling aside scraps in what used to be the gift shop with another helper when they saw the blue and gold feathers.
They pulled JoJo’s body from the rubble and buried him beneath a cross in Shawna’s yard.
• • •
Needing quiet and her own space, Peggy bought an 18-foot Coleman camper and parked it in her daughter’s driveway, just beyond the shadow of the Driftwood.
Shawna’s house was damaged, but standing, and the family planned to convert the first floor into an apartment.
Until then, Peggy kept a bottle of rum by the small sink because visitors often wanted a drink.
Tom, 78, stayed in Atlanta, better for his lungs and art, but Peggy wanted to stick to Mexico Beach. She pulled down a Murphy bed to sleep and shuffled to the bathroom past Woodie, who curled into a blanket on the narrow floor.
The Great Dane was frazzled and losing weight. Her food sat in a container outside where, one night, Peggy saw a black bear polishing it off.
Woodie resented her leash, but Peggy was worried because the dog liked to run across the street to the Driftwood.
“She kept trying to go home,” Peggy said.
After a month, Woodie stopped.
“She’s given up on going over there.”
Peggy, though, had not.
There were no restaurants in Mexico Beach. No gas stations. No grocery store. Bumpy gravel patched the highway where the road had washed away. All around the city, residents were confronting the same crisis, asking themselves whether staying was worth it. They became accustomed to the rumbles and beeps of heavy machinery and the mildewy smell of a town in decay.
“But should you give up?” Peggy wondered.
She had started running the Inn when she was a stay-at-home mom driving carpools, admittedly a little worried her ad boss husband could leave her for a model one day. Four decades later, Peggy and Tom were still together, and the Driftwood had become their greatest project.
“If a person can’t dream, then they don’t have hope,” Peggy said. “You have to have dreams.”
So Shawna and Amy stayed on the payroll, covered by an insurance policy. They canceled outstanding deposits and plucked paperwork from the rubble. They created careful inventories of what they could remember from inside the Inn. Shawna looked out across the empty white sand and wondered what was in the Gulf water. Pieces of tin or shards of homes — what had the flood taken? And would it ever wash back ashore?
Day after day, she and Amy scanned the debris for salvage — part of a stone fountain, the sign for the old gift shop. They stacked what they found at the back of Shawna’s driveway.
Maybe, they thought, those pieces would start a new Driftwood.
Times staff writers Douglas R. Clifford and Brontë Wittpenn contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected]. Follow @zacksampson.