Mayor: Handshakes won't rebuild town decimated by Hurricane Michael

Mexico Beach down to a quarter of pre-hurricane population, mayor says

MEXICO BEACH, Fla. – Six months ago, Mexico Beach was a thriving tourist town with more than 2,000 residents.

Then Hurricane Michael all but bulldozed the small beach community, ripping homes off their foundations and wiping out businesses.

Only about 500 residents remain and most of the town looks like it did right after the Category 4 storm barreled through: block after block of devastation.

The Sky4 drone flew over Mexico Beach in Bay County this week, looking for signs of recovery and found blue tarps still lining roofs and piles of debris still littering properties. Many neighborhoods now look like RV parks. In one of the hardest-hit areas, there were five RVs where people are living as they wait for contractors to help them rebuild.

PHOTOS: Hurricane Michael: 6 months later 
VIDEOS: Sky 4 drone shows Mexico Beach 6 months after Michael | Neighborhoods look like RV parks after hurricane

Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey said his close-knit town will rebuild from the rubble, but the road is long.

“It’s just going to take two to three years,” Cathey said. “Our need is as great today as it was six months ago. We cannot bring our community back with handshakes and blue tarps and water and Portalets. We have to have financial means to recover.” 

The beach town still has no gas stations, grocery stores or banks; some properties don’t have working sewage systems, and only a handful of restaurants are back up and running. 

For those still trying to pick up the pieces, “normal” has taken on a new meaning.

“This is our normal,” said Bella Sebastial, who now lives in an RV after the storm flooded her home and ripped off its roof. “It’s like, when we go back -- if we go back to what I call 'civilization' -- we don’t feel normal.”

Sharon Call is also living in an RV after the October storm flooded her one-story home. The hurricane also sent her cafe of more than three decades off its foundation. She is determined to rebuild.

"I love Mexico Beach," Call said. "I don't see myself anywhere else." 

Hundreds of other residents have the same mindset. In fact, on many streets in Mexico Beach, there’s at least one RV on every street.

Mike Laplante’s sister lives in one across the street from Call. 

“She wants to be close to her home," said Laplante, a Mexico Beach resident. 

Six months after Michael, many residents told News4Jax the biggest obstacle they are facing is the long insurance process, as there is a long wait for contractors because there's so much work that needs to be done. Some said they plan to live in RVs for several months, if not years, as they each wait for contractors to once again make their house a home.

Bay County schools still damaged 6 months later

Not only are people living in Bay County trying to rebuild their homes, the county is also working to rebuild schools that sustained significant damage during Hurricane Michael.

Over the last few months, according to Bay District Schools, many students have moved out of the school district and students have been sharing or moving schools during repairs.  

For Zamuel Compere, walking the halls of the Bay High School provides a sense of comfort. After Hurricane Michael, Compere's family moved away from the Panhandle, but he stayed to finish his senior year with his friends and teammates.

"This is my first time actually being away from my family for this long," Compere said. "The most challenging part is going through everyday life without having that mom guide that’s behind you or just your brother and sister right next to you."

Hundreds of other Bay High students are also living with the impact of the hurricane.

"There’s not a life on this campus that wasn’t touched," said Principal Billy May.

The high school is still damaged from the hurricane. Many classrooms had water and mold damage, while the wind blew off the roof on several buildings. The gymnasium had to be completely demolished. Students now walk to class in hallways outside because more than 60% of them are going to class in portables.

Although students aren’t in their normal classrooms, the school officials hope things will be back to normal by next year. As for Compere, it’s the lesson that he’s learning outside the classroom that he will take with him after graduating. 

"I’m hoping to build off what I’ve learned and experienced and set by example for my younger ones --my brother and sister -- and let them know that you can overcome anything, even when a storm like this happens," he said.

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