This past weekend my wife and I visited Mexico Beach, FL and those areas devastated last October by Hurricane Michael, which was recently officially upgraded to a Category 5 hurricane. We found ourselves “only” 4-1/2 hours from the place Michael made landfall, and decided to take the opportunity to visit that area of the Florida panhandle.
As I drove our rental car down Interstate 10, and then multiple other U.S. and state highways, I asked myself what I was expecting from this little side trip.
I’ve always been fascinated by weather, and after living through the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and its destruction of our communities; I wondered what Mexico Beach and Panama City would look like eight months into recovery.
Harvey is the only hurricane I’ve “experienced”, even after living all but six years of my life on, or very near the Gulf coast.
Since then, like all of us, I’ve learned more than I’ll probably ever want to know about hurricanes, and how each storm is different.
Maybe that’s what intrigued me so much about making this little “side” trip.
Harvey was primarily a prolonged wind event with the worst of the storm surge coming ashore at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
Michael was a storm with higher winds, and a storm surge that devastated Mexico Beach … but it was a fast moving storm.
I thought about the similarities and differences between Harvey and Michael.
Everyone remembers how brown Aransas County was after Harvey. There wasn’t a single leaf on any tree.
The area around Mexico Beach was covered with pine trees prior to Michael. Logging is a major industry in that entire region.
We lost a ton of live oak trees, but as we closed in on the area where Michael’s eye-wall traveled, all we could see were thousands upon thousands of pine trees of every size snapped in two. There was no guessing which way the wind was blowing.
Tyndall AFB, located just a short hop west of Mexico Beach, is still annihilated with reconstruction stalled due to Congress’ inaction. The huge hangar we all saw on national news is still there, but now it’s a cleaned up mangled mass of metal.
As we rolled into Mexico Beach, I had somewhat the same feeling I had when I drove into town after Harvey had passed. The big difference, of course, is Mexico Beach is not my home.
What would I see?
It looked a lot like Aransas County did, but there were a lot more bare slabs, and stilts with no homes on top.
I stopped and visited with a sheriff’s deputy, and he shared his story about the night Michael made landfall. I shared with him some of our experiences.
There’s something about talking with another human being who has experienced a natural disaster. You have something in common and talk the same language, even though Harvey and Michael were different storms.
The mayor owns the small Ace Hardware store that was destroyed, and is now operating in what once was the store’s warehouse. He was not in the day we were there, so we missed the opportunity to talk to the leadership of the town. The makeshift restroom in the back corner of the store was accessible only by exiting the front door and walking around to the back. It reminded me of the days when filling stations had restrooms on the outside, and one had to ask for the key, which was attached to a large metal object.
The destruction was similar in many ways to what we experienced, but different at the same time.
Looking at what a storm surge can do to a beach is enlightening to say the least.
Those I talked too all said the town would be rebuilt, but the loss of the beach, and its large sand dunes is what really changed the landscape, the town’s calling card.
The highway was blocked off about halfway through town, but the deputy said we could drive down that section of highway if we wanted, but generally only locals were allowed past the roadblock. Portions of the highway were washed away by the storm surge, and a bridge is still gone.
We chose not to pass the roadblocks.
Maybe it was a newfound respect for others who had lost so much.
The reality is I had seen enough in the aftermath of Harvey, and during our drive to Mexico Beach.
The way something is destroyed doesn’t really matter. It is still destroyed.
As I looked at empty lot after empty lot, I was reminded of the scene on Bolivar Peninsula after Hurricane Ike. I realized how lucky we were in terms of loss of life. Close to 50 people were killed in Hurricane Michael. Many of those who died lived in Mexico Beach and did not evacuate when told to do so.
As we started to leave, our stomachs were growling. My wife searched “best places to eat” on her phone, and then sort of laughed at herself, realizing we didn’t see an open restaurant on our first pass through town.
I ran across the deputy again and asked if there was a place to grab a bite.
He directed us to “the best place in town” – a food truck in front of what once was the restaurant.
The hamburgers were awesome.
We sat outside under some shade and shared hurricane stories with the owner.
It was hot, mentally placing us back to the two weeks after Harvey before electricity was restored.
After about an hour’s stay, we headed west through Panama City and Destin before turning north toward IH-10.
About 25 miles west of Mexico Beach I don’t recall seeing any real damage.
It is like the difference between Rockport-Fulton and Corpus Christi after Harvey.
It was another reality check.
Where a hurricane makes landfall makes all the difference in the world. Something we know all too well.
Until next week, have a good week.
Reach Mike Probst at firstname.lastname@example.org.