Hurricane Michael left a Florida ‘ghost town.’ See the before/after pictures.

One year later, Mexico Beach is still recovering from the Category 5 storm.
Mexico Beach, one year anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Michael. Douglas R. Clifford  |  Tampa Bay Times
Mexico Beach, one year anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Michael. Douglas R. Clifford | Tampa Bay Times
Published October 10
Updated October 17

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MEXICO BEACH — In the year since Hurricane Michael pulverized whatever Mexico Beach residents thought was solid — their homes, their pine trees, their resolve — “small town” has taken on a bleak new meaning. Reliance on the federal government and charity of others has become the dominant condition.

The population, once 1,200, has shrunk. It’s hard to know by how much.

[ Continuing coverage: In the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, a family looks to rebuild in a ruined town ]

People settle into leaky travel trailers on empty black nights. They check gas gauges to make sure they can reach the next town over, where there’s still a station.

“It’s just like a little old ghost town,” said Robert Baker Jr., who visits often but has moved to Alabama until he gets insurance money to fix his home.

The Tampa Bay Times has been reporting on Category 5 Hurricane Michael and its aftermath since Oct. 10, 2018, repeatedly traveling to the Panhandle to track the recovery. Below are a series of before/after pictures gathered on those trips.


The search

Rescue workers combed through Mexico Beach the day after the storm. Five people died in or around the area. Joanne Garone Behnke’s aunt, Agnes Vicari, was among them — found in her home, which had collapsed. Behnke had pleaded with Vicari, 79, to leave. “I still think about how senseless her death was and how easy it would have been to prevent it," she said. "Her house in retrospect didn’t stand a chance.”
Two days later
Seven months later
One year later

The rescue

Mexico Beach firefighters reached the Baker family in a neighborhood behind City Hall two days after the hurricane, pulling Robert Baker Sr. to safety on a gurney. One year later, the neighborhood is clear of debris, but some residents have not returned. “Some days I feel how blessed we were to survive it, and some days I’m angry because we’re displaced,” said Beatrice Baker, 77. She and Robert Sr. are staying in San Antonio, Texas, until they can rebuild.
Two days later
Five months later
One year later

The cars

The storm churned through the stilt homes and beach cottages of Beacon Hill, just east of the Mexico Beach town line, depositing two Mazda Miatas and a pickup truck amid a nest of snapped wood. Over the year, crews hauled off everything — the vehicles, the rubble and the homes that stood around them.
One day later
Five months later
One year later

The canal

The hurricane throttled Mexico Beach’s all-important commercial connection to the Gulf of Mexico. The surge picked up boats and homes and twisted pieces of metal, depositing them in sloping banks along the water. Crews worked for months to dredge and clear the passage before fishing charters and pleasure boats could return.
One day later
Five months later
One year later

Destruction erased

Whole city blocks off U.S. 98 near the water were leveled by the hurricane. Much of what remained was bulldozed and trucked away, opening gulf views as far as the highway.
Before
One day later
One year later

Destruction remains

Mexico Beach took on an estimated $60 million in debris bills, but some owners, including many still fighting for insurance money, have left their damaged buildings to sag and rot. They are derelict reminders of Michael’s force. Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey, 71, reminds himself that strength is hard to see. “You can’t measure that in rooftops and new businesses and that kind of thing,” he said. The town is at least “much more presentable.”
One day later
Five months later
One year later

The main street

U.S. 98, Mexico Beach’s central artery, was blocked after Hurricane Michael by mounds of debris from collapsed homes. Over the ensuing weeks and months, front-end loaders pushed away the furniture, appliances and two-by-fours. Road crews repaired the pavement as cars returned to the highway. “I refer to that as one of the longest walks I have ever made,” Cathey (middle) said. “What I had to look at that morning, that’s one of those take-you-to-your-knees type of experiences.”
One day later
Five months later
One year later

Photography by Douglas R. Clifford and Google. Video produced by Jennifer Glenfield.

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