Mexico Beach Part 2: The Sand Palace

Crew films owners Dr. Lebron Lackey and Russell King on their beachfront balcony.
Elizabeth Hart
Elizabeth Hart

Settling in at Mexico Beach

After we unloaded our bags, we headed back down US 98 to meet the owners of “The Sand Palace”. With spotty cell service, GPS was of no use and we had trouble locating the house. We also couldn’t figure out where to look for street names, as most of the signs did not survive the storm. It didn’t help that it was getting dark. I managed to put a call through to the owners and was told to drive past the El Governor Motel, then turn left at the orange traffic cones. They’d put the cones up near their house so visitors could find them.

We spotted the El Governor, which was just a concrete shell of the motel’s load-bearing walls, and made our way a mile down the road to the orange cones. When the owners greeted us, they were just saying goodbye to two journalists from The Netherlands. Like us, the reporters from Europe made the journey to this tiny beachfront community to ask the same question: How did this house withstand a category 5 hurricane when so many others were destroyed? We spent an hour or so with the two owners that evening, giving them an overview of the on-camera interview we would shoot the next morning.

Making the Most of Scarce Resources

The slab and piling of a home destroyed by Hurricane Michael
Many homes in Mexico Beach are nothing more than a slab and pilings after Michael.

As nightfall settled in, Walter and I drove back to the hotel in Port Saint Joe. We were warned ahead of time that none of the local stores or restaurants had reopened since Michael, so we fashioned a late dinner out of free cookies in the hotel lobby. Sugar before bed is generally a bad idea, especially when you can’t brush your teeth because there is no running water safe enough to use. A boil order had been issued that same day. No one in the hotel seemed to know what had happened with the water supply, but they didn’t seem the least bit bothered by it. It was likely just another of the many inconveniences the locals had been feeling for months.

The next morning we were scheduled to begin our shoot at 8 AM, but even this small detail proved challenging. Port Saint Joe is located in Gulf County. Mexico Beach is in Bay County. And between the two is approximately where the Eastern and Central time zones bump into each other. Walter and I were ready to walk out the door, when we thought to call the front desk and ask about the time. We were told that it was 7:30 AM at our hotel, and 6:30 AM in Mexico Beach, just 10 miles west.

With an hour to kill, I watched the local news. Keep in mind, this was six months after the storm, and Hurricane Michael stories still dominated every newscast on every channel. One station was doing live shots every fifteen minutes with a business owner who was promoting a dumpster/trash compactor that would allow customers to fit in more of the shredded remains of their homes before the dumpsters needed to be emptied.

We ventured back out on US 98 at 8:30 AM, still feeling disoriented that in a few minutes, it would be an hour earlier. The day began as they often do in Florida before the rainy season starts in earnest: warm, but not particularly humid, with a spotless blue sky and a gentle breeze.

The Light of Day Reveals the Stark Reality

As we emerged from the thickly forested area close to Port Saint Joe, we could finally see what we’d come to see at the beach. Heavy machines camped out next to towering piles of debris, their menacing claws pulling at plywood and metal scraps. Many of the structures we passed were either awaiting tear-down, or looking in need of it. The busy rush of trucks carrying the debris away never stopped. Just getting rid of the remaining scraps would take many more months.

Owner Lebron Lackey and Elizabeth Hart standing on the beach
Owner Lebron Lackey with the author.

We made our way to “The Sand Palace” and were again greeted warmly by the owners. These two men, by any estimation, are a dynamic duo. The uncle/nephew team from Tennessee are personal injury attorney Russell King and radiologist Dr. Lebron Lackey, respectively. Prior to his law career, Russell was stationed at nearby Tyndall Air Force Base. He had fond memories of Mexico Beach and as he neared retirement, asked his nephew if he would like to partner on a vacation home for the whole family. They saw the investment as an asset that could be rented out, as well as enjoyed and passed down to future generations.

Neither one of them had ever built a home, but they dove into the design and construction with abandon. I suspect that a lifetime of being overachievers might have been part of what drove them to pursue the path they did. They spent more than a year working with engineers to come up with a design that would withstand what they referred to as “the big one”. Russell, in particular, seemed terrified of hurricanes and was motivated to go well beyond the building code to ease his worried mind.

While the most recent codes for the area require structures be designed to withstand 130 mile-per-hour winds, Lebron and Russell chose poured, reinforced concrete walls, built atop 40 foot pilings, that could handle winds up to 250 miles-per-hour. The first floor stands 15 feet above the ground to allow storm surge to flow underneath, instead of through the home. Even with impact windows, the number of windows was limited to reduce the risk of creating a breach in the home from flying debris.

Hoping for the Best, Planning for the Worst

I asked them about the strange timing of things. They were just a few months post-construction when their painstaking engineering was put to the test by the first land falling category five hurricane in 26 years. Russell said he had a nagging feeling during the build. Something he couldn’t put his finger on, but at every turn, pushed him to choose function over form. They had originally planned for dormers and a balcony on the east side of the house, but after researching the increased risk for wind damage with exterior design features, they decided against it.

Russell and Lebron were able to watch the storm come ashore via a security camera mounted on the porch. It’s hard to pick out any details in the footage, other than the brutal onslaught of wind-driven water. From what they could see, they knew the house was still standing. Beyond that, they just hoped for the best. Russell drove down from Tennessee the next day and was greeted with the surprise of his life.

The “Sand Palace” Withstood the Storm, But Not Without Some Damage

While the network news drone footage made the home look like it was virtually untouched by Michael, up-close it was clear that was not the case. The entire lower level, which served as a large parking area, was composed of breakaway concrete. Breakaway, also called frangible concrete, is designed to shatter into smaller pieces and sink during storm surge, rather than be carried along in the flood waters to crash into other structures.

Breakaway concrete at the Sand Palace crumbled during the storm surge
The breakaway concrete slab on the first level of “The Sand Palace” will be replaced.

It performed exactly as it was supposed to, laying folded on top of itself in large chunks. Obviously, the slab would have to be replaced and there was some major surgery ahead on the pilings as well. Lebron and Russell were in the process of consulting a number of experts on what sounded like complex solutions for the visible cracks on several of the pilings.

There was also water damage to deal with on the interior. Two of the smaller windows on the east side had been hit by flying debris. The outer panes of the impact glass were a spider’s web of cracks, but true to the manufacturer’s promise, the inner panes remained intact.

Main Living Area Takes a Hit

They weren’t so lucky in the main living area. Just before the storm, Russell realized the doors that led out to the beachside balcony had been installed incorrectly, but it was too late to fix it. This weakness allowed for a large amount of sea water to push into the kitchen and family room. Drywall repair was underway, but all things considered, the damage was minimal. Russell and Lebron think the floor drains scattered throughout the house saved them from a much bigger mess by allowing the water to clear quickly off of the tile floors.

Lebron and Russell were very generous with their time and the telling of their story. When asked what it cost to build the home, they were reluctant to say, but stressed it wasn’t as much as you would expect. They estimate it was fifteen to twenty percent more expensive than a standard build. They told us repeatedly how grateful they were to have the resources to build the way they did.

Changing Building Codes As the Climate Changes

Impact window shattered on the outside
This impact window on the east side of “The Sand Palace” was shattered on the outside, but the inner pane held and the window was still functional.

When I asked them how they felt about all the attention they’ve garnered, they said their only hope was that the media coverage would inspire other coastal homeowners to push beyond the required building code. As we gathered our final shots of the home, CNBC arrived with a crew of eight. They were interviewing Lebron and Russell for a year-long series called “Rising Risks” which focuses on how climate change is affecting the economy. When we left “The Sand Palace” for the last time, the house next door was getting bulldozed. It was built to top local code, just two years before.

Stay tuned for our third and final installment of this series!

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