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As hurricane season looms, Mexico Beach idles at a crossroads, still broken from Michael

Life has slowed in the desolate town, where the Wood family is ready to move on but stuck in a lonely interlude.
Peggy Wood, left, and her daughter Shawna Wood walk on the slab where the Driftwood Inn once stood in Mexico Beach. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)
Published May 23
Updated May 24

One in a series.

MEXICO BEACH — The dusty pine floors and moldy walls made Shawna Wood’s throat itch as she coaxed her mother to throw away things they had saved.

“What about playing cards?” said Peggy, 78, holding up a deck.

“Uhn-uh.”

Peggy dropped the cards into a cavernous black trash bag. “What about a rusty ice pick?” she said, sitting on a folding chair surrounded by plastic boxes.

“I don’t think so,” Shawna said.

The Woods had spent the aching weeks after Hurricane Michael plucking whatever they could from their destroyed Driftwood Inn — chipped furniture, tangled charging cords, wet books and cracked sculptures, hundreds more pieces they could not catalog — storing the piles in the "red house," the last of four rentals still standing across the street. The remains filled just a few rooms.

In the warm light of spring, treasures they thought would form the beginning of a new Inn were revealed as soggy, rusted, splintered and, in the worst cases, smelly like water from an unflushed toilet. Another impediment to progress.

Shawna, 54, tied her hair in a loose ponytail and wore old Driftwood T-shirts for the cleanup, joined by her mother and another longtime motel employee. She missed crossing the street each morning to work at the Inn, the visits with guests, making coffee and filing paperwork. Now when she answered emails or paid bills, she simply walked to a computer in her living room in her pajamas, alone. She hardly ever put on makeup anymore.

Peggy finally felt ready to let go of their broken possessions, but not everything. She fingered the lid of an old cigar box, tilting it to reveal two red fabric “L’s” — her husband Tom’s marching band letters from high school. She and Shawna came upon years of the motel’s taxes, wadded papers with runny ink stuffed in a shopping bag. Peggy opened a dry box of Kodachrome slides from the 1960s, the images still visible of family holidays.

“I mean, where do you start?” she wondered. “Where do you stop?”

The Woods tore down the remnants of the Driftwood in March, hoping to kickstart a rebuild, but the in-between is slow and lonely. All around Mexico Beach, residents seem ready to move on, but what comes next feels far off.

READ PREVIOUS COVERAGE FROM MEXICO BEACH

Sometimes after long, fuzzy days, Shawna walks across the street, passing over the Driftwood slab, tile still stuck in the concrete. She wonders why the motel seems so small without walls. She dangles her legs off the edge of the foundation, looking past palm trees and purple martin houses to where the water darkens under an indigo sky. In those quiet moments, her old life almost comes back to her.

“As long as I don't look back at the devastation behind me,” she said, “this is peaceful.”

Shawna Wood sorts personal items salvaged after Hurricane Michael. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

• • •

The sun sets in May over a slab in Mexico Beach. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

Mexico Beach remains a shell, even as the next hurricane season looms a week away.

Few people are talking about it.

Peggy has noticed this May feels hot, and she wonders whether that hints at an active hurricane season, or if the town just doesn’t have much shade left. Federal scientists recently upgraded Hurricane Michael to a Category 5, a reality residents had long insisted upon.

Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey outside his hardware store in May. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

“What can we do?” said Mayor Al Cathey. “We can’t protect anything, we haven’t fixed anything.”

He points out that the town has no water tower (toppled in the storm), permanent fire or police headquarters, bank (there’s a truck with an ATM parked in a lot), grocery (a Dollar General will reopen nearby soon), or gas station.

When Peggy wanted ice cream one night recently after getting a tooth fixed, she and Shawna had to weigh whether a 45-minute round trip to the store was worth it.

“I’m not going to spend 10 seconds thinking about June 1st is hurricane season,” the mayor said. “I don’t have the time.”

Color is returning in the blue of the canal and the green of lawns and a few deep-rooted sea oats.

A salty breeze blows in the evenings, unencumbered by rotting houses that have been torn down close to the water. The moldy air is finally relenting.

Birds swoop at sunset, their chirping replacing the whine of buzzsaws. Heavy machinery growls, but the jobs remain small, reframing decks and refitting roofs. In a place where more than 800 buildings were destroyed, major new construction is still hard to find. The sidewalks are clear of trash, but also people.

WATCH: THE WOODS DESCRIBE LIFE TODAY IN MEXICO BEACH

PART ONE: Dream, interrupted

PART TWO: If they build it...

PART THREE: A place to remember

Talk has shifted to politics, blooming from shared pain to collective anger. People save their sharpest words for Washington, D.C., where President Donald Trump and Congress bicker over a disaster aid package that still has not come more than 200 days after landfall. The president held a political rally earlier in May, nearly an hour away in Panama City Beach. A friend offered to take Shawna, but she decided to stay home because of her sore knees.

Even as water and sewer services remain out on multiple streets, the public works director and city clerk have resigned. The mayor fears fatigue settling over city government, which absorbs residents’ ire over the slow progress.

With two new city council members starting in June, Cathey will try to revoke a rule that has become another flashpoint. Leaders in Mexico Beach passed an order after Hurricane Michael that banned anyone but property owners or previous tenants from living on their land in mobile homes or trailers. Cathey said officials were afraid “undesirable people” would come to town. But the area was full of rentals before the storm, he said, and government didn’t regulate prospective residents then.

Now it’s just empty.

• • •

Peggy Wood tends to her daily routine of coffee on the porch of her daughter's home in Mexico Beach. Peggy lives in a downstairs apartment after the Driftwood Inn was destroyed last October by Hurricane Michael. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

A hazy dawn brightened Peggy’s screen porch as she sipped coffee and waited for her friend — one of three still living in Mexico Beach.

For 19 years, Peggy has served on the turtle patrol, scanning the beach for tracks or signs of nests. She and Connie Risinger, 76, take the Tuesday morning shift.

Connie pulled up about 6 a.m. in the turtle car, a decrepit gold Ford Explorer.

The sea turtles lay eggs where they were once hatched themselves. Mexico Beach is a home for them, too.

Peggy is worried about what will happen this year, with machine operators plopping truckloads of fresh sand across the beach, forming an emergency berm several feet high.

Do construction crews know to look for turtle tracks? Will they identify the trademark imprints, as if wide, uneven tires had wobbled ashore?

Peggy peered over the dashboard as Connie steered onto the beach a few blocks from the Driftwood.

They made big passes across the sand, U-turning and repeating their route to find a clear path. Small roads used to grant easy access to the shore, but many were destroyed by the storm.

Peggy Wood, center, prepares to log sea turtle data while volunteering for a local turtle patrol with friend, Connie Risinger, at right, in Mexico Beach. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

Turtle patrol gave Peggy a different view of Mexico Beach, the damage on the water side more stark than from the road. Homes and quadruplexes were blown out and sagging, rooms exposed, shreds of Tyvek wrap and insulation waving like flags of surrender.

“I hadn’t seen that house from this side,” Peggy said, passing a decaying building with blown-out walls.

“You look at that thing, that’s terrible,” she said, spotting another, where a washer and dryer lay tossed onto a mash of wood two stories high.

A stuffed turtle rested on the dashboard, underneath a green crucifix dangling from the mirror. Peggy and Connie turned down a passable road to the beach, bouncing over a rug they had placed in the sand before the storm to help prevent their wheels from getting stuck. “Hard to believe,” Connie said.

After a couple of hours, and two false tracks, where turtles came in but turned around without laying eggs, she dropped Peggy back at the apartment on the ground floor of Shawna’s home.

They used to go for breakfast after patrolling, but the restaurant they liked isn’t around anymore.

Peggy eased back into a seat on the porch, to drink more coffee and listen as the beeps and rattles of power tools picked up around her.

• • •

Peggy Wood, left, and Shawna Wood sort through personal items salvaged after Hurricane Michael. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

May used to be a lull between busy seasons at the Driftwood.

After the snowbirds left, workers dusted behind headboards and touched up paint, knocking off little tasks they wouldn’t have time for when summer guests arrived. They trucked in plants from Lowe’s to freshen the garden.

"I had people with me all the time," Peggy said of her 43 years surrounded by staff and guests. "From the time I got up in the morning until I went to bed at night, I was visiting with somebody."

Now she has that time to herself, in an unfamiliar quiet.

The month brings birthdays for Bart, her son, and Tom, her husband, who hit 79 this year. He'll visit Mexico Beach to celebrate but said he’s too old for parties.

Tom’s health troubles tend to flare when he enters the disaster zone, especially his breathing. He was recently hospitalized in Atlanta, where he lives most of the time, with a blood infection stemming from a biopsy that showed he did not have prostate cancer.

From afar, Tom has directed his energy toward meetings with a Tallahassee architect, rough plans taking shape for a new motel.

He and Peggy talk about breaking ground as soon as September, if permitting comes through. Though they’re still trying to settle their insurance payments, they hope the architect can lay out an affordable plan.

Tom has already bought stained glass windows for when they rebuild the chapel, which Shawna wants to help pay for with a fundraiser, selling prints of the small white building to guests. She's also collecting tiles, porcelain and glass, to make collages of the ruins.

What little remains of the Driftwood business takes up a lot of her time. Shawna, Peggy and another employee are technically still on payroll, supported by a loss of income insurance policy they hope will cover expenses in the time they're not open. It maxes out at $900,000, she said, and the Woods believe that will include about $65,000 they recently paid in property taxes for their various holdings in Mexico Beach. Their taxes after 2019 should cost less — they have just half a pizza restaurant, the red house and several parcels of vacant land left.

Shawna Wood, left, and Peggy Wood stack up water-damaged tax documents. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

Shawna also juggles work on her own home, where a father-and-son construction team steer a lift around Peggy’s apartment to hang new siding. Later she’ll tackle repairs to the floors and walls where rain seeped through.

She did not have hurricane insurance, having dropped it eight years ago when the yearly premium reached $6,000 for wind. Her father is adamant that she take out a policy this year. She needs to make note of the parts of her home damaged by the last storm first, so the insurance company knows not to cover what she already lost.

Paperwork and rubble form a miserable slurry, but Shawna has no desire to leave Mexico Beach. She spent Christmas in Atlanta and fretted the whole time about what she was missing.

Peggy is about to go on vacation in Europe, encouraged by Tom, but she wonders: “What’s going to happen when I’m gone?”

She recently had the old Driftwood phone number forwarded to her cell, calls coming in once or twice a day that she'll miss answering when she’s away. Sometimes it’s an old guest, just checking in, or occasionally someone from New York, California or another far-off place, somehow unaware of Hurricane Michael, looking for a vacancy.

• • •

Peggy Wood, right, plays with her great-grandson, 8-month-old Maverick, center, while visiting with Shawna Wood, left, on her porch in Mexico Beach. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

Eight-month-old Maverick is starting to pull himself up off the ground.

He crawled on the floor of Peggy’s porch, smiling, his round face bobbing at the Woods’ feet. He’s Shawna’s only grandson, Peggy’s first great-grandchild, and they spoil him. A family friend typically watches him during the day.

Maverick’s thin hair angled into a mohawk on his pale head. He smiled and chomped at blueberry cereal puffs with his two stubby bottom teeth.

“When I have Maverick, I kind of forget about everything,” Shawna said, kissing his cheek as he teetered on her thigh. “If I just had nothing to do but be with him, I’d be fine.”

The baby toddled around the floor below a stained glass window, inlaid with a tulip, a narrow slice of the old front door to the Driftwood. Hours after turtle patrol, Peggy still wore a volunteer shirt, with a quote from a former congressman on the back: “The more we exploit nature, the more our options are reduced, until we have only one, to fight for survival.”

Playtime with Maverick paused when a woman with a visor stepped from a brown SUV outside and called for the Woods. Mary St. Clair, a former police officer in Chattanooga, Tenn., used to visit the Driftwood. She wanted to say hello.

St. Clair, 70, was on vacation in Panama City Beach with her sisters, she said, but she took a day to drive to Mexico Beach.

Walking into Peggy’s apartment, she poured out memories of the Inn.

“We’d just sit out there, watch the sunset,” St. Clair said.

“With a glass of wine...” Peggy continued.

“With a glass of wine.”

“I miss that,” Peggy said. “I really do.”

St. Clair shared a picture of her daughter, whom she used to bring on vacation. The girl is 38 now, and married. She honeymooned at the Driftwood.

“Time flies,” St. Clair said.

Shawna thought about how it felt as if two years had already passed since the hurricane. “This doesn’t seem to be flying by,” she said.

St. Clair lamented that Panama City Beach, with its high rises and commercial stretches and crowds, wasn’t the same.

She looked at the Woods, wondering.

“So if we came back into Mexico Beach next year...”

Times staff writer Douglas R. Clifford contributed to this report.

• • •

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