MEXICO BEACH, FL [16 OCT 18]– I have no doubt, last week, in the immediate hours and days following Monster Storm Michael, the air here was filled with the competing sounds of chainsaws, branches cracking, and parts of centuries-old oaks falling to the ground with a sickening “thud” …
Today was different.
In storm-obliterated Mexico Beach (or “Mexico City Beach” as so many people are wont to say), it was mostly quiet. Serene, friendly … and hopeful. And heart-breaking in a deeply spirit-crushing sort of way.
I left Santa Rosa Beach early, knowing it would likely be a slow drive into the latest Ground Zero, the last one being a few weeks back in the Carolinas after that bitch Florence blew through. Dense fog forced me off U.S. Highway 98 back onto Scenic Highway 30A which would typically be my last choice on a school drop-off morning.
The drive would be 55 miles so, eh, 90 minutes to get over there and donate a trunk-load of supplies that included toothpaste, toothbrushes, dental floss, deodorant (men’s and women’s), shampoo, shaving cream, razor blades, two boxes of pre-packaged snacks, 250 bottles of spring water and … toilet paper. There is but no other item more glorious and appreciated than toilet paper when the moment is nigh.
Take that, Viagra and Cialis.
Nope, three hours.
Three sickening hours that got worse as the odometer gained in age. Ten miles from home where Scenic Highway 30A meets U.S. Autobahn 98 on the east end, a toppled Texaco canopy was already under the surgeon-welder’s restorative touch. A few downed tree limbs here, a lot of palm fronds there, as I inched further east. Florida storms can be brutal, especially on the piney woods of the Panhandle, but so far this one seemed like it had been, well, sort of benign … until I reached the east side of Panama City Beach, a dichotomous neighborhood that blends sketchy sections with magnificent waterfront homes of a bygone era.
Then you see the oaks. Great, glorious Live Oaks that stand tall and strong with arms that reach out to the world in a reassuring, I will always be here for you kinda way. They’re everywhere once you get to east Bay County. Old ones. Big ones. Spectacular ones meant to stand for centuries and centuries … and then a century more.
Now they stood stripped and shamed and twisted and gnarled; their dignity and majesty stolen by a blustery dude named Michael who blew through town six days earlier for, what, one, two, three hours on a Wednesday afternoon …? He definitely left his mark, his tattoo, his scar and his memory on what must’ve been, in more glorious days, a rather noble section of these parts.
Today, the ‘hood and the haute tôit stood shoulder to shoulder. In need. Humbled. On their knees.
Seeing that was the easy part …
I crept ever more slowly east through Callaway and Parker and a town called Millville that I’d never heard of and, without thinking, turned the radio off to drive in silence. It was instinctive. This was serious. This was solemn. This was sickening. This was some serious shit. I knew it would be. I didn’t know how much it would be.
I stopped along 98 to shoot some images of something, I don’t know. I squeezed off more than 300 Nikon and cellphone moments today, knowing I’d have to cull them to a precious few with impact. They all had impact but I wanted real, soul-stirring, gut-wrenching impact to try and keep awareness alive for the extended period of time so many good folks are going to need to even dream of a normal day.
As I started back to my car, a voice called, “Hey!” I turned and a lady in a turquoise bikini who had no business being in a bikini of any color or size, waved to me in obvious need so I walked towards her.
“When you get to the guard shack, can you tell someone there are two water lines at the Bonita Bay Marina shooting fresh water in the air and we need to get them capped? I hate to see fresh water wasted when so many people need it.” I assured her I would.
A mile down the road, I stopped at the western-most guard shack to Tyndall Air Force Base on the south side of the road but nobody was there. Oh, well, I thought, I tried. But I really hadn’t. I continued east and found another Tyndall checkpoint, this one on the north side of 98, with a skinny young guy in camo and an AR-something over his shoulder wearing the look of a soldier who takes his gig seriously. I kept my hands in sight and looked him in the eye and explained the situation — ill-advised turquoise bikini and all. He looked a little befuddled. After all, the third largest meteorological monster had swept through less than a week earlier and there were bigger fish to fry in a part of America that likes to fry its seafood. He asked me to write down the issue, my name, and my phone number. I did.
I continued along the section of 98 that bisects Tyndall Air Force Base, home of the world’s largest Raptor squadron which I know is a big deal but, honestly, I’m not up on such things. And then reality started building in volume … and the car radio remained silent.
Mile after mile after Oh, Lordy… mile, there were tall, skinny pine trees, snapped uniformly like they’d been meticulously folded along an assembly line. The orderliness amid such chaos was weird. They were all angled downward in the exact same southwesterly direction at roughly the same height off the ground, maybe 12’-14’; no doubt the incriminating evidence of a counter-clockwise rotation of a cyclonic shithead like Michael.
I lost count at one million broken pines.
There wasn’t much traffic aside from speeding, yellow/red/blue/green/orange flashing vehicles of all sorts – local cops, military, insurance adjusters, FEMA, Florida Highway Patrol, U.S. Forest Service, Florida Wildlife & Fish Commission, news van, tow trucks, and who knows what else — along this dead-ass-straight stretch of east-west highway. I pulled off at one point to shoot some pictures, aware of the dude in the blue shirt with the logo patch a few hundred feet away and thinking he might be some type of law enforcement and likely not happy with my roadside dawdling.
“You a Buddhist?”, he asked, eying the chakra bracelet on my right wrist.
“No, I don’t identify as a Buddhist but I do like a lot of Buddha’s teachings.”
He was a Field Producer with The Weather Channel and a nice guy. Soft-spoken, friendly and sweaty … like everyone else. I resisted the urge to gush over Jim Cantore (I have long said I would love to write and field-produce for “the other JC” as a dream job because I’m fascinated with weather extremes). He warned me, “It gets worse from here, a lot worse. Be careful drivin’ in.”
He was right. Damn right.
I rounded a bend thinking I was within a few miles of my destination and, boom, a Mexico Beach sign suddenly beckoned with “Welcome! Share the beauty we enjoy every day!”
Not today. The sign was broken on its crown with a backdrop of snapped pines.
There were National Guard checkpoints here and there and, surprisingly, not as restrictive as I’d expected. The Weather Channel guy had told me they’d stepped up their vetting in recent days but would likely let me through if they knew the trunk held relief. Truth be told, the Guardsman acted more like friendly traffic cops (AR-Somethings and all) as they routed vehicles around utility crews and disaster recovery operations. They waved and smiled as you passed by.
There was no barking or yelling, no sign of tensions running high (even in the 90-degree October heat) six days into this catastrophe. If anything, when people spoke, they did so in the manner of someone who had worked their way through the early shock and focused only on moving things along. The “To Do List” is long.
I asked a group of firefighters on break and eating lunch under side-by-side EZ-Up Tents where I could drop off the supplies. “City Hall will take ‘em. Keep going on 98 a little bit then turn left. You’ll see the signs, they’re spray-painted orange on pieces of plywood.”
I pulled up to “City Hall” – really just a smallish, one-story, boxy building – and the sweat-coated lady with sleeves rolled up to a set of beefy shoulders told me they’d run out of space inside and I could take the relief supplies to a larger, staging area. “Go to 386 then turn north and keep going ‘til it ends then take a left and you’ll see it. And, hey … thank you,” she said, that last part delivered heartfully and with purposeful eye-to-eye contact.
They don’t tell you there’s no 386 sign anywhere and it would take me passing by several times in both directions before I figured it out.
It was a big, open grassy field probably used for autumn fairs and carnival rides, happier times, for sure. There were more pop-up tents here than a dozen college football tailgate areas. The Guardsman at the entrance asked me what sort of supplies I had.
“Cases of water, toilet paper, hygiene products, things like that.”
“We’re good on the water, we got like eight truckloads in yesterday but we’ll take the hygiene products, especially the toilet paper,” he said.
They were good on water. There were cases and cases of bottled water stacked chest high and covering large areas of the grassy field. I’d hit Dollar Tree and Costco in Atlanta before driving down to Santa Rosa. I bought the most I could that would fit in the car. It had taken several hours last weekend but, within 90 seconds, it had been unloaded by a couple of National Guard guys who thanked me repeatedly.
I felt empty. I knew our contribution would be a trifle, given the enormous need, but I didn’t expect it to feel like such a trifle.
With all but the cases of bottled water now where they belong, I made my way back to the shore road, pulling over from time-to-time, to snap more pictures and see with my own eyes the horror that had occupied so much of the national news networks’ programming in recent days. Drone shots were the greatest story-tellers as you got a bird’s eye sense of what had really happened in Mexico Beach which, until last Wednesday, was one of the few remaining stretches of coastline clinging to its Olde Florida charm. When the town rebuilds – and it’s going to take year upon year – things will never quite be the same. Quaint will have to abide by current building codes, once-majestic trees will take decades to grow tall enough to once again clothe the region, and no doubt some property owners will say “The hell with it …” and sell to developers who will bull their way through local planning commissions to get approval on slick new condo developments then bulldoze any of the charm that gets in the way of their wallets.
It’s the Florida way.
Now headed west back towards Santa Rosa Beach, I pulled over at Northstar Church along 98 … in Callaway, I think. There were spray-painted signs that said, “Free Supplies / Ice” and a long line of grateful takers snaking their way through the parking lot. The Costco bottled water I’d bought comes in 40-packs, not the usual 30 or 24, and those suckers are heavy, probably a good 35 pounds or so. A skinny little guy, maybe 10 years old, ran over to me and said, “I’ll take that for you!”
“It’s heavy, real heavy,” I warned, figuring the kid maybe weighed 75 pounds with heavy shoes on. His eyes widened and bulged as he took the load but he managed to get it over to the staging area … and left me to unload the rest. Which was fine with me, I don’t blame him for opting to ride on a pallet jack instead. Even catastrophe can’t get in the way of child’s play.
I took my time driving back, working my way out of Ground Zero to the fringes of the weather-whipped war zone, noticing things on the return trip that I hadn’t seen several hours earlier. Along the way, I heard on the radio that search and rescue teams had been able to search — but not rescue — two more souls whose bodies were found today in the destruction. Where I just was. The death toll was now at 29 … and counting, sure to climb higher. I shuddered.
Passing by Tyndall Air Force Base again, I was stunned at how much had been damaged or destroyed there – a huge hangar, nine zillion pine trees, cinderblock buildings, and a line of bright orange military drones like the one I saw one evening on the beach walkover across the street from us in Santa Rosa. That night, I’d heard a distant buzz, instinctively pointed my Nikon skyward, panned west to east, and was lucky to capture a shot of the drone that had to have been traveling at 200 MPH.
Back in 2007, on the way to the beach from Atlanta on a late Thursday afternoon, I’d been trying to outrun a bad squall line ahead of a cold front. The threat of tornadoes was high and I wanted to get south of the system before it passed. The sky was purplish-black to my right as I rolled through the bright white cotton fields of southern Alabama. I made it through with about 45 minutes to spare.
Enterprise, Alabama wasn’t so lucky.
An EF-4 twister with 170MPH winds dropped from the skies onto Enterprise High School and took eight students with it. Fifty more were injured. Three days later, on my Sunday afternoon return drive to Atlanta, curiosity and an urge to donate some recovery money had me detour to the high school where cars were still flipped, trees were down and pink insulation hung in the branches of trees that had been luckier than others. I stopped by the First Baptist Church and wrote a check. I marveled at the alluring smell of barbecue chicken and pork and hamburgers and veggies that filled the air. There were boomboxes playing music and smiling folks seated around folding tables, sharing a meal and consuming the meat that would otherwise spoil if it wasn’t soon cooked.
I’d expected somberness but I saw something otherwise. A spirit of community, neighbors helping neighbors, laughter, warmth and gratitude to still be alive to work their way through the tough days, weeks and months ahead. Enterprise is known as the “City of Progress” – at least that’s what the water tower says – and it’s believed to be the only place on the planet with a statue of an agricultural insect on its Main Street. Nearly 100 years earlier, the boll weevil invaded Enterprise and wiped out its entire cotton crop, forcing local farmers to diversify their crops the next season – peanuts and other things – which brought a level of prosperity cotton never had provided. City leaders paid homage by commissioning a statue of the dastardly weevil for actually being a blessing in disguise.
Six days ago, Mexico Beach sustained the equivalent of a dozen EF-4 tornadoes, maybe 100, I don’t know. The devastation was just that great and widespread. And truly gut-wrenching. I have no doubt their story of rebuilding and reclaiming their lives and their little beach town will one day rival that of Enterprise. You could hear it in their tones today and see it in their grateful eyes. “FEMA Please Make Mexico Beach Great Again” read one spray-painted bedsheet hanging from a second-story balcony.
Mexico Beach (and Callaway and Parker and Youngstown and Blountstown and Marianna and Vernon and Chipley and …) will need FEMA and much, much more to make that happen. The road is long and it’s uphill. Steeply uphill. This success story will be written over years and, in some cases, decades since trees don’t grow tall overnight. There’ll no doubt be another disaster (they’re inevitable) and eyes and attention will move on to the next as Hurricane Michael did to that bitch Florence in the Carolinas. Before long, it will be left entirely up to the good folks of Mexico Beach to see it all through.
Pray. Donate. Volunteer. One day, the story might include a plot-twist and suddenly you’re the victim.