A Multi-Generational Town
With just a few hours left before we would head back to Orlando, Walter and I drove over to the local ACE Hardware to meet Al Cathey, life-long resident and current mayor of Mexico Beach. When we arrived at the store, which was Al’s family business, he was in his element, shaking hands and asking customers what he could do to help them. The store was bustling with electrical linemen buying supplies and builders loading up on plywood. Mayor Cathey was exactly what you picture when you think of a small town mayor. Beyond polite, gregarious and proud of his people. Like himself, many here were second and third generation Mexico Beach residents.
A lot of the homes that perished had been passed down through families and now belonged to the grandchildren of the first settlers. He told us the population before Michael was about 1200. After Michael, there were less than 500 still living in town full-time. He was conservative with his estimates of how long it would take to rebuild, thinking and hoping that in five years there would be more homes than empty slabs. When I asked how he felt about “The Sand Palace” effectively becoming the face of Mexico Beach, he said he was fine with it, but most people in the area wouldn’t have the money to build a home like that. Mayor Cathey said this was a simple place where folks just wanted to enjoy the natural beauty. He told us the owners of the Sand Palace seemed like very good people and he appreciated them allowing workers to stay at their house during the rebuild.
The History of Mexico Beach
Before we left, Al said he thought we should visit with his cousin, Cathey Parker-Hobbs. In 1946, Cathey’s grandfather bought 1,850 acres of beach in Bay County for $65,000. It took more than two decades and a lot of hard work to develop, but in 1967 Mexico Beach was incorporated. Cathey’s father, Charlie Parker, was the city’s first elected mayor. Like everyone we met in Mexico Beach, Cathey welcomed us with open arms. She is currently living in a rental, waiting for her own home to be repaired.
Wearing a green t-shirt with “#mexicobeachstrong” proudly printed on the front, she shows me black and white pictures from a book about Mexico Beach that she and Al put together. There’s an irrepressible smile on her lips as she tells us story after story about her life and the history of her beloved town, the two forever intertwined. She is a lovely and kind woman and Walter and I are sad to leave her. After just two days here, we too are bewitched by this ruined place in the sun. Cathey asks us to come back and check in on Mexico Beach next year, when she’s sure they’ll be in much better shape. Walter and I don’t know what to say, but we desperately hope she is right.
An Uncertain Future
During the long drive home, I thought about everything we had seen and heard in the last 48 hours. Mayor Cathey told us the cost of the debris removal would top out at $50 million. This, in a city that has an annual operating budget of $3.5 million. They’d received a few million dollars from FEMA so far and we met many volunteers working long days to help clean out the seemingly endless debris. At the time of this writing, Congress still hadn’t passed a comprehensive disaster aid package and so many of the homeowners haven’t received their insurance money to rebuild.
When we visited the Mexico Beach tourism office in their temporary trailer, it sported a sign that said “Mexico Beach: The Unforgettable Coast”. They can only hope that this counterpoint to “The Forgotten Coast” will take hold. During a post-storm visit by the president, governor and FEMA Director, Mayor Cathey said he begged them not to forget about Mexico Beach. With the protracted recovery and lack of resources, it seems inevitable that developers will seize the opportunity to reimagine this old Florida community.
Cathey Parker-Hobbs, who saw Mexico Beach rise from the sand once before, likely has a spot-on prediction for her town’s future. Her parting words to us were, “Mexico Beach will come back. It wont be the same, but it will come back”.