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It has been six months since Hurricane Michael flattened parts of the Florida panhandle. So much so the storm was upgraded to a rare Category 5 hurricane. Areas affected by hurricane Michael are still struggling to get back to normal. Mexico Beach was ground zero for the storm, it washed away homes and businesses. Now, six months later, a few restaurants have popped back up, but they don’t look like you may expect. Before Hurricane Michael Mango Marley’s was a Mexico Beach hot spot, at times with hours-long waits to get inside. The storm blew that all away. But that didn’t stop them for long. Just over a month later, Mango’s Outpost was born. “This was the only place you could come to get a hot meal,” said Courtney Huff, who works at Mango Marley’s. “We only had two option on the menu, you could get this or get this. Now we’ve expanded and we actually have stuff from off of our menu from inside.” Down the street Caribbean Cafe opened up days after the storm, working without power or running water. “We started serving coffee a week later. To the firefighters and the first responders,” said David Kaiser, the owner of Caribbean Cafe. Both restaurants say they’ve been busy, serving mainly workers who are rebuilding the city, and locals looking for a slice of normal life, but inevitably reality creeps back in. “I speak to people every week, it’s their first time in. They own something here, but they live somewhere else, and it’s their first time in. And some of them are just they’re bawling because they’ve lost so much. It’s, it’s hard on people,” said Kaiser. The business owners, the workers, the people who live here all say the same thing, the work is worth it. “I like being here, you know this is my home, and I don’t want to leave. Because, it’s a small town like this, we care about each other. It’s a blessing to be able to work here and be able to spread some joy,” Huff said. Mango Marley’s lost their roof in the storm, and with it, all of their equipment was damaged. But they are rebuilding. They hope to open the doors to their restaurant by August.
In the aftermath, the question for many became re-build or move? Immediately after October’s storm, there was no real estate market. “Now what’s happened is people have gotten their insurance money, or not gotten their insurance money, and they’re making the decision if they’re going to sell it or if they’re going to rebuild,” said Natalie Shoaf, a realtor in Port St. Joe. Most of what’s on the market are empty lots where home stood before the storm, or houses were taken down to the studs. She says a lot of her buyers are people from Alabama and Georgia, people who have been here before and love the area. “It’s a three bedroom, two baths, and the price right now down to the studs is $239,000,” Shoaf said. “Somebody puts 100 thousand into it, they’ve got a gulf front unit in the low threes. Where you gonna buy that anyplace else? You’re not going to buy that anyplace else.” Over in Mexico Beach, it’s a similar story. “You know pre-Michael, Mexico Beach, there were waiting lists,” said Mexico Beach Mayor, AL Cathey Cathey says six months later they are back to pre-Michael pricing. He says they are working hard to preserve the identity of Mexico Beach, and that can mean saying no to investors and buying groups. “Protecting what we have, is at the top of my list, number one. Number two is ensuring that the quality of life that we had here comes back here and it will,” he said. While it’s a good time to buy, experts say you have to know what you’re getting. you have to understand the flood zones, and what it will take to put these houses back together. Six months after the storm property insurance claims in Florida have totaled over six-billion dollars, with the vast majority of claims relating to residential properties.
Another business working to get back to normal is the El Governor Motel, a landmark in Mexico Beach. They have been closed since Hurricane Michael, but are rebuilding. They have a disaster response team working to prevent any further damage to the building and have put up a temporary roof and use a generator to heat the rooms to dry them out. Structural engineers say the high rise is safe to rebuild, but that’s still a long ways off. The El Governor says they lost all of their records in the storm, and that they are completely starting over. Now, the El Governor faces a problem that many in Mexico Beach face, residents and businesses alike. They have to find workers that will be able to do the rebuilding, and then they have to find a place for those workers to stay. Which is a challenge when 75-80% of the city’s dwellings were destroyed.