Advertisement

After Hurricane Michael, a family pushes toward rebuilding, divided between emotion and economics

Three months after the storm, the Woods want to bring back the Driftwood Inn in Mexico Beach. But can they afford it?
From left, clockwise, builder Finley Cook, engineer Lance Watson, Tom Wood, Peggy Wood, Brandy Wood Jessen, Shawna Wood and architect Bill Bridges meet at the site of the Driftwood Inn to discuss plans to reconstruct the beachfront motel, which was destroyed by Hurricane Michael. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Published Feb. 1
Updated Feb. 1

Second in a series.

MEXICO BEACH — Peggy Wood kept sitting up in bed.

She snatched a legal pad and added to a scattered list of things she used to own.

She imagined she was at her old desk in the Driftwood Inn, and jotted what she saw. Six glaze brushes, an embroidery machine, dressmaker’s scissors. A Nikon camera. Lights for that camera, and a backpack. Perfume she spritzed on before going out to shoot photos.

Each item was a chain link in a new insurance filing after Hurricane Michael ruined the Inn she and her family spent four decades building.

The Woods had received a little more than $2 million in insurance payments by January, mostly from flood policies. They still hoped for at least another $1 million from wind coverage but did not know how much it would cost to rebuild the sprawling motel and its outbuildings, 24 units in all.

$3 million? $10 million?

Would they have enough?

This was the post-storm math they had to master if they wanted to own a motel again.

The old Driftwood slumped across the street, a rotting husk Peggy could see from her camper. She and her husband, Tom, couldn’t tear it down until they finished with the insurance and secured a city permit.

But they were eager to accelerate the pace, three months since the storm, and decided to set a meeting with a builder. They hoped he would give them a solid estimate, and in doing so, an assurance they could afford to rebuild.

Peggy and Tom, both 78, wanted to recreate the Driftwood. Perhaps it wasn’t the shrewdest financial decision, they said, but they dreamed of leaving the Inn to their family.

And just as important, they believed, Mexico Beach needed them.

CLICK HERE TO READ THE FIRST STORY

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE TIMES' REPORTING IN MEXICO BEACH

VIDEO: THE WOODS TALK ABOUT REBUILDING

• • •

Tom leaned against his cane and Peggy clutched a walking stick on a cold Friday in January as they crossed the street to the ruined Inn. Her face was scabbed from a recent fall in the yard. His jeans were speckled with paint, his trademark in the style of Jackson Pollock.

“Look at how pretty that ocean is today,” Tom said, staring out at the still blue water.

“Calm and beautiful,” Peggy replied.

He was nervous, she excited. They were just minutes from meeting the builder, Finley Cook, not the cheapest contractor, but someone they knew and trusted to tell them honestly how expensive rebuilding could be. Tom and Peggy were joined by daughters Shawna and Brandy and Brandy’s husband, Jack Jessen, who was helping manage the insurance money.

They huddled around a folding table in the Driftwood’s old tea room, underneath yellow insulation that fell like moss from the exposed ceiling. White fan blades drooped above them like wilting flowers.

Outside the broken windows, the sun was dipping closer to the Gulf. Their stretch of town was quiet, with few cars and nobody relaxing in the sand.

“I’m going to start it out,” Tom said. “And then you guys tell me I’m full of it.”

Personalized soaps, once distributed to guests of the Driftwood Inn, remain on a windowsill in the motel after it was destroyed by Hurricane Michael. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

• • •

After Hurricane Michael, many residents of Mexico Beach described themselves as falling into two categories: those who did not have insurance and those who did not have enough.

Most didn't fully understand their coverage until after the storm destroyed homes, churches and the town grocery store, leaving neighborhoods almost entirely cut off, with roads washed out or impassible under a thatch of broken trees.

The Woods carried insurance on the Driftwood, flood and wind, both important where storm surge inundated the ground floor and 150 mph squalls ripped apart the second. They had a lost wages policy, but it didn't provide enough for their three housekeepers and a couple of maintenance men, who they knew were struggling.

They didn’t have storm insurance on a couple of rental properties, including one building they owned downtown, which contained a few shops and businesses. And Peggy learned that her renter’s insurance, required to cover all the personal possessions in her sunny apartment on the Driftwood’s second floor, turned out to only work for hail or snow.

"The worst ripoff I’ve ever run into in my life," she said.

Peggy Wood, left, and her daughter Shawna Wood visit with four-month-old Maverick Wood at Peggy's camper in Mexico Beach. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

She couldn’t remember how much they’d paid each year in premiums on all they owned — $60,000, maybe? She hoped that investment would matter now. Some of her friends had already hired lawyers to fight their insurance companies. The Woods had not. Yet.

Money came quickly from the flood policy, covering wreckage that included the motel’s tea room, once full of old record players, sewing machine tables, a player piano. But an insurance rep told Peggy she could get even more if she included other items lost on the Driftwood’s ground floor. Hence the list she sketched out whenever another memory surfaced.

• • •

Peggy, Tom and the kids had talked about whether bringing back the Driftwood even made sense.

“To be quite honest, I’d be better off taking the money and going to Tahiti,” Tom said. Maybe he could build one house back in Mexico Beach and pocket the other couple of million dollars.

Daughter Brandy had suggested they clear their five lots on the beach and design a nice home for her mom.

Peggy cried at the thought. “That sounds like a death sentence, doesn’t it?”

The Driftwood was the Woods’ nerve center. It was hard to imagine the family without it.

GALLERY: THE WOODS IN MEXICO BEACH, THROUGH THE YEARS

Shawna, 54, had moved back in 1999 to help run the Inn. Brandy, 52, and her brother, Bart, 55, lived in Atlanta but kept second houses in town.

Brandy imagined her children and their cousins running the business together one day, telling the story of how their family rebuilt after the hurricane.

Tom sometimes wondered whether he had enough years left to manage the recovery, a joke laced with genuine worry. He suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and a few years before was on life support while struggling with mantle cell lymphoma. Peggy stuck to a vegan diet to help with heart problems.

The family had savings, but the effort to bring back the Inn would be financed almost entirely by insurance money. Peggy said the government might lend to them at a decent rate. Tom pegged their budget at $4 million to $5 million.

The worst that could happen, Brandy thought, was the family would push and push to build the Driftwood, and Peggy and Tom would never see it finished.

“I don’t want them to regret not going where their heart’s set on,” she said.

The Woods recovered from catastrophe once, when a fire burned most of the building in 1994, after Peggy left chicken frying while she answered a doorbell.

Defying estimates, they rebuilt in a year then, but that was with a fully operational town behind them.

Amy Hay, left, an employee of the Driftwood Inn, and Shawna Wood explore the remains of the property in December. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

• • •

The Woods were drawn to Mexico Beach for the same reasons as everyone else before the storm. It was small, isolated, different. Expensive to live in some spots, but paradise for those who could afford it.

No chain restaurants. No big box stores. City development rules kept homes below 32 feet and commercial properties below 48 feet.

Local officials were, even after the hurricane, trying to keep it that way. No taupe condominiums or high-rises blocking views of the water.

Before the hurricane, the town had just 1,200 residents along three miles of shore.

Mayor Al Cathey, a longtime friend of the Woods, said leaders in Mexico Beach could not change all the rules to address flooding like they saw during Michael, a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe. Hurricane Opal in 1995 was the worst a lot of people could remember, making landfall farther west around Pensacola Beach, and according to the mayor, even that had flooded only two or three rows of houses by the water.

Scientists warned of rising seas and more major storms, but Hurricane Michael, for many longtime residents of the Panhandle, was an exception, not a rule. Recovery means staying put, just a bit higher up, with an economy subsidized by public disaster funding.

Peggy Wood arrives at the site of the Driftwood Inn, background, before meeting a builder in early January. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Money, though, is among the town's biggest obstacles, just like for the Woods.

“The budget’s out the window,” said Cathey, a 71-year-old Mexico Beach lifer. Officials had just paid a $2.8 million debris removal bill to a key contractor, he said, pooling all of their resources — the canal fund, the maintenance fund, everything they could.

Cathey tried to maintain optimism amid the sand-whipped trees and crumbling buildings. He expected $30 million in debris removal bills alone, with contractors trucking the mess to a dump site miles from town, and that didn’t even factor in new construction. By the end of January, that estimate had risen to $50 million. Mexico Beach held just $1 million in reserve, he said, when Hurricane Michael hit Oct. 10.

Cathey estimated 75 percent of buildings were already demolished or would be soon. A flood map, presented at a city council meeting, shaded almost the entire town green to mark where the storm surge hit. Researchers said water levels climbed near 20 feet in some places.

Sewer services were restored to most of the city, but not to a chunk of streets south of U.S. 98, where much of the neighborhood was reduced to a dusty sheet of slabs.

Consultants were helping the 41-person city staff, formerly dedicated to cleaning the sand and maintaining the roads, handle the havoc left by the strongest hurricane to strike the Panhandle in recorded history. But those consultants cost money, too.

Many recovery expenses, according to Cathey, were reimbursable through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But the mayor said Mexico Beach was still waiting for some dollars at the start of the new year.

A key date loomed for the city to be ready with new regulations: Feb. 8, when people like the Woods could pull permits and start rebuilding, if they were ready and willing.

The mermaid sculpture, center, was recovered from the Driftwood Inn after Hurricane Michael. It was formerly part of a fountain behind the motel. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

• • •

The Woods wanted to be a part of resurrecting Mexico Beach, but they risked throwing resources into their property before they were sure others would follow suit. Some people might not have the money or energy to return.

“It’s a gamble,” Shawna said.

The Inn, and the town, depended on tourism. Mexico Beach still had the white sand and Gulf water, but would guests visit if they had nowhere to fuel their boats or stock snacks for their kitchenettes?

Peggy worried about the whole town running out of money without businesses paying taxes. "At this point," she wondered, "can it afford to stay?"

Property owners had gotten offers to cash out. The mayor said developers were “lining up at the gates.” The Woods had received several offers by phone and postcard, no firm dollar amounts, just probing questions:

Did you get enough insurance money? Are you ready to sell?

“They’re sharks,” Tom said.

Bringing back the Driftwood could offer a welcome purpose to their golden years, he thought, unlike the people he saw who faded away in front of televisions.

“If we can do it, if we can pull it off, if I have enough money,” he said, “I can get excited.”

Peggy Wood visits with her Great Dane, Woodie, while sorting through a pile of pots and pans collected from the rubble of the Driftwood Inn. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

• • •

Tom carried a folio of sketches into the meeting with the builder, inspired by letters from guests who shared memories of the Driftwood. Their encouragement made him want to keep the next version as close to the original as possible.

Peggy sat to his left as he spread the prints over the folding table and pushed them toward the people he hoped could make the drawings real. His voice was deep but quiet as he explained the essential parts of the design: a prominent gable up high, the gazebo out back and a replica of the Inn’s old entry.

Engineer Lance Watson pours over Tom Wood's hand-drawn rendering of a potential rebuilt Driftwood Inn. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

He said they would install breakaway walls and forego insurance on the ground floor if it meant they could keep check-in at street level. The main floors would be elevated 10 feet. Tom talked about installing two elevators to take people down to the beach.

The Driftwood property fell inside what was known as the coastal construction line, regulated by the Department of Environmental Protection, and the latest rules before the storm could force the Woods to build 17 feet above sea level, though they're unsure what to expect now. With the natural plane of the beach, Peggy said, the old Inn had sat on flat ground about 12.5 feet above water — too low to meet codes.

Tom nixed any chance of maximizing space by putting a parking lot under the building. “That to me looks like (a) Holiday Inn,” he said. And people don’t write letters about Holiday Inns like they did about the Driftwood.

“My mother loved it, too,” said Finley, the builder.

He listened as Tom explained the family’s vision but did not speak much. He asked if the Woods could send the sketches as a digital file.

“No,” Tom said.

“Yes,” his daughters corrected.

The Woods had hoped they would emerge from the conversation certain about rebuilding, but Finley did not give them a firm estimate. He explained how he could build to any budget, but the result might not be exactly the motel they wanted.

“Money,” he said, “money’ll do anything.”

A view of Mexico Beach through a window in the Driftwood Inn. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

First, though, the engineer, Lance Watson, needed to conduct a survey and feasibility study. That could take months, dragging to April or May.

City leaders were still talking about local building ordinances, he said, and a dizzying number of public agencies will have some say over how the Woods use their property. That includes not just the Department of Environmental Protection, but the Florida Department of Transportation, which holds influence in the right of way off U.S. 98, and the Northwest Florida Water Management District, which is involved with requirements for managing stormwater.

Those agencies, as much as the Woods’ budget, will determine whether Tom can have his ground floor, or custom roof, or gazebo in the sand.

The engineer will keep track of the shifting regulations and — for a price — lay out exactly how they can rebuild.

Tom told everyone he was not too concerned about another hurricane. He had always accepted the risk. His family was in Mexico Beach long before the Driftwood washed out.

Lance, the engineer, urged him not to worry. Whatever they build will be stronger.

“It’ll make it through this storm,” he said, “next time.”

Brandy Wood Jessen arrives at the site of her family's motel, the Driftwood Inn, in January. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
The Driftwood Inn as seen from Mexico Beach after Hurricane Michael. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Times staff writer Douglas R. Clifford contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com. Follow @zacksampson.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

    Advertisement
    Advertisement
    Advertisement