“Oh, look, one of my birds,” she said one recent evening, as she spotted a flamingo-shaped lawn decoration in a pile of debris.
She had no idea what she’d do with what she found. There was practically nothing left in Mexico Beach but vacant lots, sand and shimmering water. This was a small town of 2,000 beloved by its residents and business owners who, like Frost, were determined to rebuild and restore it. They just didn’t know how.
“Everyone wants to know what you’re doing, but you don’t know what you’re doing,” said Frost, 62. “You don’t have a home. You don’t have a business. You don’t have an income.”
Change here is now inevitable, in a community that didn’t want to change. T-shirts proclaimed this place the state’s “Mayberry,” the antidote to mascot-branded Floridian commercialism. Residents now fear developers will buy out desperate property owners and build high-rises and golf courses that would change the community’s character. Such revivals happened in Mississippi beach cities wounded after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In many cities, more development would be welcome. But the town council here actively worked to keep things simple.
They restricted commercial buildings to no higher than 48 feet; homes, no higher than 32. They instituted rules against developers stringing together vacant lots, preventing massive properties that were long or high.
Two years ago, developers sought an exception to those rules when they proposed building a hotel on consecutive lots. Residents launched a social media campaign to shut them down. The council sided with the residents.
In Michael’s aftermath, Frost wondered whether it would be so easy for the council to be so cavalier. Residents had little clue how much they would get from private insurance or from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She rented her building and hasn’t been able to get in touch with property owners. Her desire to stay was clear, but the path to achieving it was uncertain.
As she searched for old pots on this evening, a sunburned man with Michelob Ultra in his hand approached her. He began a now-familiar conversation about how much the town had lost, and stared at a now-familiar scene of blown-out buildings and mounds of rubble. This time, inside that pile, he saw something unusual.
“Is that my boat?” he said.
“It could be?” she said. “I found some of my old building over there. You can tell because the wood is made of teal.”
“Maybe I could save my boat,” he said.
He ran across the street and stared in the rubble for a few minutes. His boat was inside the pile, but he didn’t try to dig it out.
“What’s the use?” he said. “I can’t save it. At least I know it’s there, I guess.”
'I'm coming back'
Nearly a month after Hurricane Michael, Mayor Al Cathey said that his town is trying to remain optimistic. Cellphone towers are up and the local energy provider has dispatched 250 trucks and 500 workers to replace every downed power line. It will take another two weeks until the entire town has power again, Cathey said. The water is not drinkable, but it is now running through the faucets and can be used for showering and cooking.
No one has yet to do an estimate of damage, Cathey said, and no one has any practical idea of what redevelopment plans might look like.
“We’re going to have to see how new building codes affect construction,” he said. “There are still a lot of blanks we need to fill.”
Those sentiments seemed familiar to John Kelly, the city administrator in Gulfport, Miss., a city of 70,000 that was decimated by Katrina. Back then, Kelly said, the city received more than $250 million from FEMA to rebuild sewer lines, restore power grids and repave roads. Repairing infrastructure took more than a year, Kelly said, but the improvements then lured businesses that built new casinos, local restaurants and then reimagined downtown as a vibrant tourist attraction.
Along the way, Kelly said, the city invited residents to a workshop to give input about the future of the city, which helped boost morale.
“It was more therapeutic than anything else,” Kelly said. “But when you’ve been hit by something like a natural disaster, you need something to hold on to — to make you feel like you can help.”
Cathey felt his city didn’t need workshops to determine its future. Everyone wanted the place to hark back to its past.
“The founding families used to say we are strong of mind, strong of back and strong of heart,” Cathey said while he stood outside his hardware store, now a jumble of wood and wires. “We aren’t trying to make a show and be something we aren’t. Families here didn’t need a Ferris wheel or bumper cars, or the hustle-bustle. We’re old Florida here.”
“But there is going to be a significant visual change for the place,” Cathey continued. “Those old beach cottage homes that have been passed down for generations? They’re gone.”
Minutes later, a gray-haired woman driving past the hardware store slammed her brakes. She was trembling when she stepped outside her car. She walked toward Cathey, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“I had to stop and hug the mayor,” she said. She grabbed him by the arms.
“I’m going away for a while, but I’m coming back,” she said. “Do you hear me? I’m not giving up.”
Now, it was the mayor whose eyes were tearing up.
“I know there are more like this,” he said. “We loved what we had.”
Frost felt that way, too, but she had to be realistic. She needed to make money.
The business was starting to boom this year, she said, and then her husband, Jay, developed a heart aneurysm. By August, he was gone. Then came Michael, and their business was gone. Their house was, too.
She found an old empty building in the town of Eastpointwith an apartment above it that was up for sale. So she planned to use the money from her husband’s death to buy the building, purchase a new cash register and begin moving the pots from the sand. She’d start a new shop in a different town.
“I’ve lost a lot in the past year and it’s still happening,” she said. “But I’ve come to peace with what I need to do.”
She hoped to open a second shop in Mexico Beach when the time is right. She couldn’t will it, but she still hoped, one day, that the town would come back. And when it does, she’d be back, too.
This is the Mexico Beach that Chris Maday knew: He ate breakfast at Sharon’s Café and dined at Mango Marley’s. He was excited about the new auto shop that opened a year ago by a man who also fell in love with the same laid-back, no frills community he did.
When Maday’s children were growing up, he relished taking them to get snow cones at Tommy T’s and walking with them along the pier. It was a quiet, serene place.
Now trucks and excavators were picking up piles of debris, wood, brick and rubble. Police sirens blinked and blared, and spray paint was scrawled on homes the color of Easter eggs. Signs for free water and hot meals abounded.
Cars constantly passed by with their windows down while passengers recorded video on their phones, mouths agape. For a city that didn’t want any tourist attractions, it had become one.
Sharon’s and Mango Marley’s were now boarded-up shells. Tommy T’s collapsed and the pier’s wooden planks had blown away.
Maday said he thought the town could restore its original identity if he helped old businesses. So he tried to help Frost find her old stuff. He was searching through the rubble one day when a woman yelled, “We found two of her pots down there! Do you want them?”
The woman’s name was Jane Hughes. The wave that washed away the pottery shop had also washed over the roof of her family vacation home. The water cascaded inside, pushing out the insulation and destroying everything within.
“Our home is gone, so we are just trying to help people,” she told Maday. She gripped a faded 8-by-10 photo in her right hand, on which she had a wrist tattoo that said, “endure.”
Hughes hoped her family could endure. Her father had inherited their house across the street 11 months ago from his father. His father bought it from her great-aunt, who built the house in the 1950s.
“Even after insurance, the place will probably be more than we can afford after bringing it up to code,” her husband, Marcus Hughes, said begrudgingly. Logically, they all agreed, it would make more sense to sell the house than to try to keep it.
“That’s not going to happen,” Jane Hughes said. “If a developer tried to buy that house, my father would probably try to shoot him.”
“We just don’t know how many people are going to feel that way,” Maday said. “The older people can’t rebuild; it’s too late in their lives. Who is going to be left? Who is going to care? The trucks will be gone, and all that will be left is us. We are just the flavor of the week. Then, we will be forgotten forever.”