MEXICO BEACH — Peggy Wood, of the Driftwood Inn, did not look forward to Oct. 10. She couldn’t help but look back.
In 2018, the day brought annihilation. In 2019, it forced her to confront the gulf between then and now.
“I think of the devil,” said Peggy, 78. “It wasn’t fire, but it was water. And it just came in, and it destroyed everything we loved.”
Days still orbit desolation. She lives in an apartment below her daughter, Shawna; they are the only full-time residents of 21st Street.
The remote qualities they once cherished have made recovery more lonely. There is still no sit-down restaurant in town, because Michael was so fierce, but also because there were only a few before.
Those who endure the stutter step of recovery from a Category 5 hurricane try to take solace in cleaning up — mounds of debris hauled away and ragged edges of blown-out buildings erased by wrecking crews.
Mexico Beach is not the same. The Woods are certain now it never will be.
Outsiders, they think, probably see tragic inertia, messy lots and eerie vacancy. Longtime residents decide seemingly every week not to return. The mayor proudly says the city, once of 1,200, has issued 30 permits for new construction, and that doesn’t cover major repairs. At least 800 structures were destroyed.
The Woods can trace months of blurry adjustment: Day 3, when Peggy and Shawna returned to Mexico Beach and saw the Driftwood in ruins; Day 75, when for the first time in years they held Christmas somewhere other than Mexico Beach; Day 143, when Peggy, her husband, Tom, and their children toasted a final sunset at the Inn; Day 152, when they started tearing down what was left of it; Day 177, when it was gone for good.
The motel the Woods ran for 43 years is not close to being rebuilt. The blue-green sign sits upturned next to Shawna’s house. Sand whips the slab across the street. Bringing back their mom-and-pop operation will cost $7 million, daunting even for one of the city’s major business owners.
One year has not brought resolution to the many problems looming: cost, permitting, stamina. But Peggy has gained clarity. She realizes there is no clear path out of natural disaster, and what determines her family’s future is more personal than pragmatic.
“If I introduce myself to someone, it’s as Peggy Wood, Driftwood Inn,” she said. “It’s almost like it became my name.
“If I don’t put it back, do I lose my identity?”
• • •
On Day 272, Peggy and Tom soaked up the air conditioning at an architects’ office two hours away in Tallahassee, gazing at a television screen in a carpeted conference room.
Images flashed by of the new Driftwood, or at least a vision of it, the white building under an angled red roof, rimmed by palm trees. The Woods had spent decades expanding and refining the old motel, where they raised three children and hosted potluck suppers and movie nights with guests who became close friends.
“First thing I notice is you have two on the top,” Tom said, pointing out dual cupolas in the renderings.
Architect Jodie Dodson explained how those would be honeymoon suites. “I think it creates a little more movement on the top,” he said.
The Woods visited Dodstone Architects every few weeks, usually when Tom, 79, drove down from Atlanta, where he had long worked and still lived most of the time. They chose the firm because one of the architects, Micah Dodson, was from Mexico Beach. He would understand.
Another advantage was Dodstone’s location in the state capital, which helped the architects manage the grinding bureaucracy of post-storm development.
“Can we move the motel seaward?” Tom asked.
“That’s going to be a different department we’re dealing with,” Jodie explained. Regulators from the state Department of Environmental Protection controlled construction so close to the dunes.
The renderings showed silhouetted people, white sand and sea oats in back of the motel. One looked at the Inn from the water, elegant above a glassy blue Gulf.
It was sweet to imagine.
The architects tried to manage expectations, interjecting patience and sensibility. They talked about elevating the inn 3½ feet to account for state requirements for properties so close to the water.
Tom loved the reception space for weddings and parties. “There’s nothing in Mexico Beach that would even come close to this,” he said.
Peggy worried about storage for bedding in the laundry area. They chose room layouts from a thin packet. Tom wondered about adding a cafe.
Conversations swirled around the fine points of design before the Woods cleared the boring but critical hurdles of permits and financing. The process encouraged them to dream about finishing touches well before they were close to breaking ground.
“I really like it,” Peggy said. “I just wondered how expensive it was.”
This is how it had gone since January, when they first met a local builder and walked away with a disappointing lack of information about exact timelines or how much money they needed. The months that followed became a landslide of diminished expectations.
Tom hoped to rebuild in a little more than a year. No chance. They wanted to at least break ground before 2020. Not possible. Peggy thought they might have a building permit by around Thanksgiving. The architects said they are not sure.
• • •
On Days 304 and 305, Peggy and Tom puttered up the intracoastal in a pontoon boat, stopping near White City. She read; he brushed on canvas — tall pine trees, dark water, an angled shore bird and burning sunset.
Tom didn’t paint for a few months after the storm. He later told Peggy those days on the pontoon were the most fun he’d had since.
She noticed his style looked more abstract.
Summer used to bring short-term guests to Mexico Beach — tourists who would rent beach umbrellas and jet skis behind the Driftwood, or sign up for fishing charters at the canal.
This year, though, there were no open rooms and a long section of U.S. 98, Mexico Beach’s main drag, was closed for repairs.
“It didn’t seem like summer to me,” said Shawna, 54.
Peggy escaped to Europe for a month but her daughter stayed, wary of leaving even as the weeks blended in a haze. Shawna plodded through paperwork, trying to cobble together receipts to prove to their insurance company that they had lost tens of thousands of dollars of antiques and art in the gift shop. The Woods did not want to hire a public adjuster, who they knew would take a cut of the proceeds.
Peggy and Shawna were the only members of the family living full-time in Mexico Beach, but Shawna’s siblings, Bart and Brandy, kept homes in town and visited often from Atlanta.
• • •
On Day 309, workers laid sod outside Shawna’s house, covering a sandy brown square with deep green.
“I forgot how good grass makes you feel,” Peggy said. “We just stood there and stared at it.”
• • •
On Day 311, Shawna and Brandy joined friends snorkeling on the backside of Black’s Island in St. Joseph Bay for the second day of scallop season. They dove in, scanning the sandy bottom for iridescent blue eyes, open shells ready for the picking.
Reaching for one, they would sometimes grab three — the best catch Shawna could ever remember.
The Woods shucked scallops in the bay, then hurried home to saute them with butter, garlic and onions.
• • •
On Day 323, Peggy kept her eye on cable news. Forecasters were saying Hurricane Dorian, still in the Atlantic Ocean, might cut through Florida. Across the Panhandle, people scrambled for gas and water, like never before.
“They just knew it was going to wipe out what we didn’t have,” Peggy said. She only wanted to figure out if she would need to run to Alabama again, like she had before Michael.
Later, she and Shawna looked at pictures of the Bahamas, obliterated by the hurricane, with a new level of understanding.
“You forgot about the place that the storm hit the worst,” Shawna remembered.
Now they lived in it.
• • •
On Day 332, the Woods made a public commitment.
For a week Shawna had sat on a picture of her family, standing on the slab, Tom and Peggy holding up plans for the new Inn. She intended to post the image to the Driftwood’s page on Facebook, to signal that her family was, after months of contemplation, going to rebuild.
Bart and Brandy, from Atlanta, urged caution about diving into the project but ultimately supported their parents. Shawna and Peggy were all in. Tom wanted to restore the motel, but just as Shawna was about to share the news, he suggested caveats.
The Woods encountered new problems all the time. The latest? Their taxes for the Driftwood, which they said they thought would drop without buildings, actually increased from $40,000 to $42,000, because of a rate hike. The land alone had always accounted for much of the assessed value.
They had at last received the turn-key cost estimate for a new Driftwood, $7 million covering everything from construction to beds and televisions and lamps.
That was nearly double the insurance money. Back in January, Tom had pegged their budget at $4 million to $5 million.
Peggy wondered about grants, or a loan, which the kids were firmly against, worried about inheriting debt.
"Right now I think we're going to jump in over our heads, but we're going to do it,” she said.
Shawna eventually settled on words she thought were honest but hopeful.
“I have struggled with whether or not to make this post for a week now...” she began. “We have redesigned the Inn and with excitement and hope in our hearts, now comes the hard part, Can we... with the new building codes, taxes, restrictions and guidelines of being right on the Coast..the road blocks are unimaginable.”
Her phone buzzed immediately and kept going for hours. The post was liked and shared so much that it was seen by 52,000 people. Some said the plans looked like “the Driftwood grew up.”
• • •
On Day 342, doubt and anger washed over Peggy’s optimism.
The city council met to discuss whether to dissolve the local police department and contract with the Bay County sheriff. They talked about savings in the long run, a more stable workforce, better-trained officers. But Peggy could only think of the cops who stuck by them after the storm. She called friends to make sure they showed up.
The former city administrator spoke first by phone, reminding people that Mexico Beach estimated it faced up to $250 million in recovery costs and had already eliminated four public works jobs and another in city hall.
Mayor Al Cathey said the decision wasn’t about money, so much as getting improved service.
The residents who ringed the room, backs against the pale blue walls, disagreed.
They asked about the hurry. They said the city would lose its hometown feeling. Peggy raised her hand and talked about life in Mexico Beach decades ago, when sheriff’s deputies were the only law enforcement around and it was hard to get help.
“We are thinking about building a (24-room) hotel,” she said. “We don’t feel comfortable doing that without having our police department here.”
The motion passed 3-2.
Peggy threw up her hands and rushed out of the room.
• • •
On Day 351, Gov. Ron DeSantis visited Mexico Beach for a “major announcement.”
Peggy and Shawna hoped he was offering money, perhaps to save the police department. “I have to take a picture of me and Peggy with him so we can put it in the Driftwood,” Shawna said, as a friend joined them for the one-block walk to city hall.
People crowded into a pavilion on another stifling day. Aides repositioned American and Florida flags, and debated whether to turn off the whirring fans behind the television cameras.
The governor wore cowboy boots, jeans and a blue polo with his name stitched across the breast. Shawna leaned into a wooden post, clutching a Dr Pepper, craning her head to see.
DeSantis said the state was giving a $1.1 million grant to Mexico Beach, the first from a pot of money approved by the Legislature last spring. It would cover salaries and operations for the fire department, and the city would use the rest for startup expenses in the move to the sheriff’s office.
“I understand the progress is slow,” the governor said. “But I do see progress.”
Mayor Cathey, a longtime friend of the Woods whom Peggy had not spoken to since the police vote, stood behind DeSantis, wearing Crocs in a wall of elected officials.
What’s your annual budget? DeSantis asked him.
How much do you have in debris bills?
Over $60 million.
“You guys make that math work,” the governor said, turning back to the cameras. “I don’t think you can make it work.”
He promised more help would come.
Cathey had watched all year as city staffers struggled to meet Federal Emergency Management Agency requirements. Form upon form, hour after hour. And the city had to bear costs up front, with federal money coming in the form of reimbursements. Local officials were exploring whether to take out a $25 million loan. Mexico Beach had lost 26 percent of its tax roll.
“We are literally drowning in debt,” he later said.
• • •
On Night 351, Peggy packed ice into a soft cooler and joined 11 other women across town for Bunco, a dice game they hadn’t played since Michael. She was a fill-in for regulars in the group. One woman drove from Tallahassee, where she and her husband had moved after the hurricane destroyed their home. At 71, Linda Wiley decided they were too old to take on major repairs.
“We just said, ‘I don’t want to pick out knobs for the cabinets and pulls for the draws,’ ” she said.
Wiley described the gathering as “coming home.” Not necessarily the place, but the people.
They sipped wine and laughed, in no hurry to play.
• • •
On Day 355, road crews reopened U.S. 98 from the edge of Mexico Beach almost to the middle of town. For the first time in months, drivers could pass through without a detour, past the few new homes going up on top of thick concrete pillars, to the recently reopened marina store that sold sandwiches, eggs, sweet tea, foam coolers and flip flops. The shop smelled like new wood. Next to the door, above the light switches, a black Sharpie smudge marked the high water line.
• • •
On Day 365, Peggy tried not to look at her phone.
She and Shawna kept getting texts from old guests, asking if they were okay. Peggy wanted to avoid too many reminders of the hurricane. News trucks idled on the side streets of Mexico Beach once more.
Just before 12:30 p.m., the moment last year when Michael’s eye made landfall, the Woods were returning home from an errand, hauling dog food inside.
Peggy talked to Tom on the phone, seeing how things were in Atlanta. He had been visiting doctors for recent bouts with pneumonia. A week before, they had revised plans for the motel, tinkering with the facade to make it look more like the old Driftwood.
“Maybe you call it my swan song,” Tom said. “It’s the last thing that I’ll do in Mexico Beach.”
Peggy and Shawna killed time until the evening, when hundreds of residents gathered in the town’s business center to mark the anniversary, wearing commemorative bracelets that said “ONE YEAR LATER.” They unfurled camp chairs in a parking lot next to a stage and 12 American flags.
Elected officials took turns at the microphone, ending with Mayor Cathey.
Mexico Beach, he said, was not about lost buildings but people, still there, nursing cold beers and squinting in the sun.
“I don’t think there’s any question about (do) we have an identity crisis,” he said. “We truly know who we are and what we want to be.”
When he finished, residents lined up for heaping portions of pulled pork, coleslaw and beans. Peggy bobbed to a local keyboardist playing How Sweet It Is. She found an old friend, who lives next to Brandy in Mexico Beach.
The woman said hello and introduced Peggy to some people behind her.
“This is the Driftwood lady,” she said.
Times staff writer Douglas R. Clifford contributed to this report.
2019 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide
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