Seven months ago, Hurricane Michael ripped through parts of Florida's panhandle, including Panama City. The most harrowing images from the storm came from Mexico Beach, a sleepy three-and-a-half-mile strip of sand known for spacious beaches and top-class offshore fishing. After the Category 5 storm hit the area, the community was all but wiped out.
Over the last few months, though, Mexico Beach has reopened some of its tourism infrastructure in the hopes that those who have loved the area in the past will return to partake of the community's sand and sun.
The city recently announced that the canal and boat access ramps had partially reopened, signaling a major development in the rebuilding efforts. Additionally, the sand dredged from the canal is to be used as emergency berms to stop the beach from further erosion, with plans for additional beach repair and replenishment in the future.
"We've been telling people that if you can find your door and open it, then please do as quickly as possible," Kimberly Shoaf, president of the Mexico Beach Community Development Council, told me in a phone call last week.
"Last November, we opened our Welcome Center in the parking lot where our offices used to be. We wanted to send the message that we needed to get back up and running as soon as possible, so we took the lead."
Mexico Beach heavily relies on tourism to fuel its economy. Prior to Hurricane Michael, the city was home to four hotels as well as many vacation rentals. Shoaf's tourism budget is more than double what it was when she took over the organization in 2010, coming in at just under $800,000. "It may not seem like a lot, but for us, it was a monumental amount of money." Ninety percent of that revenue is now gone -- coming entirely from the hospitality tax -- but she says there's a silver lining. "Even since the storm, we've never had a $0 month. Because of the workers and crews staying here, they're also paying the hospitality tax, so we've been able to keep operating, though on a much, much slimmer margin."
None of Mexico Beach's four hotels are open, but the Driftwood Inn, El Governor Motel, Gulf View Motel and Buena Vista Motel are all working to rebuild and eventually reopen.
Several of the city's accommodations are open, including the Rustic Sands Resort Campground. Vacation rentals are available (though not directly on the beach), watersports rental company Barefoot Kayak & Paddle Board Rentals is open, and three restaurants have also reopened for business. Another major milestone in Mexico Beach's rebuilding was the launch of the first fishing charter since the storm, which set off from the marina on May 22.
Shoaf emphasizes that while Mexico Beach is open for business, first-time visitors are encouraged to wait a while before coming to town. "They're just not our audience right now. This isn't our best foot forward, so to speak, so we want to manage expectations," said Shoaf. "But if someone knew our community before and loved it like we love it, we want them here."
She said that, unlike other Panhandle destinations like Panama City Beach, Destin or Pensacola, Mexico Beach is a very small city (about 1,200 residents before the storm), and there isn't much diversion outside of the natural beauty of the area. "What you see is what you get here. When tourists come to Mexico Beach, they're coming into the heart of what we are and what we've been through," she said. "Our message is that we are here and we want you to be here, too, but please understand that we are still cleaning up."
There's still a long way to go in Mexico Beach. Right now, there isn't even a grocery store or gas station in town. "The nearest gas station is 15 minutes away, so visitors will need to plan accordingly," she said. Shoaf also noted that there is still construction on the beach due to the dunes that were washed away in the storm, but "we've still got plenty of room for your two towels and an umbrella," she said.
When asked what her goals are for the next eight to 12 months, Shoaf laughed. "Get a gas station," she said. She asked travel advisors to let clients know what the situation is but that if Mexico Beach was ever on those clients' radar, to keep it there. She encourages previous guests to return and enjoy the fishing, beach time and boating activities they've enjoyed in Mexico Beach in the past. "We still have everything you've ever done here. None of our major tourism drivers were taken from us, except maybe the fishing pier, and if anyone has 7 million dollars to give me for that project, I'll start building it tomorrow!"