Hotel rises as Mexico Beach recovers from Hurricane Michael

MEXICO BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Standing on the deck of the new Driftwood Inn, 3½ years after Hurricane Michael wiped out the old one, Tom Wood spoke about the months following the storm.

One of his daughters had urged him and his wife, Peggy, to pocket the insurance money and leave the hotel.

The Driftwood was then a nest of splintered wood and crumbling history: paintings, receipts, mattresses, tables, chairs, all fallen together and streaked with mold. A 14ft flood and 150mph winds had dismantled Mexico Beach, turning the gulf oasis into a 3 mile field of rubble.

Now 82, Tom was addressing a few dozen guests for the hotel’s reopening ceremony on the first weekend in June. The bridge where they sat was 8ft off the ground, part of a building perched atop 97 concrete columns and rebar – higher to prevent another flood, stronger to mitigate the wind.

Mexico Beach was home to four hotels and motels before Michael. The Driftwood, three stories tall with 23 rooms, is the first to return, a symbol of the city’s ongoing recovery. It is bigger, stronger and more expensive.

Rebuilding Michael cost about $13 million, according to Tom, more than double the roughly $5 million they received from insurance.

Purple swallows fluttered and dove into nest boxes on the deck. Small waves rolled in the white sand. Tom, holding a microphone, wore a straw hat, a pearl earring and a Hawaiian shirt.

These first guests did not pay. These were people the Woods wanted to thank — architects and builders, family and friends (old and new) who sent supplies or picked up from the wreckage.

Behind Tom, at the western edge of town, the trees were the shadows of Michael, naked and bent, silhouetted against the setting sun.

The antlers weren’t gone.

“I want to build a monument in Mexico Beach City,” Tom said in thought. “I want to leave a legacy.

“And we have.”

At dawn on October 10, 2018, Mexico Beach was a vision of old Florida. Duplexes made of concrete blocks, level with the sand, lined with roads that ended in the dunes. There was a cafe, a hardware store, a pier.

By nightfall, the city had been destroyed. The storm ripped the roofs off and floated them hundreds of feet inland on both lanes of US 98. The Woods hotel hung in a semi-collapsed state, waiting for the wrecking crew delivers the final punch.

They did not know what the reconstruction would cost. $3 million? $10 million? Their bill has skyrocketed over the months and the pandemic has made workers and materials more scarce. Tom and Peggy paid for the plans for the new inn, which, according to their daughter Shawna, “looks like the old Driftwood grew up”. They paid to keep a few people on staff. They paid for concrete in the parking lot, metal on the roof and tiles on the floors. They paid for every chair, sink and toilet.

The family sold other properties — an office building in Atlanta, a pizzeria in Mexico Beach — to pump more money into the inn.

Around the skeleton of Driftwood, the city’s real estate market, like the rest of Florida, began to boom.

Today, bright new multi-storey houses, mounted on stilts, soar above vacant lots where weeds grow. Vacation rental signs trail in front.

Mexico Beach has not found its pier, but the marina is full of boaters. The town also has a gas station. And a subway.

The inn sits on five beachfront lots. Half a mile away, a single vacant lot is on the market for $1.2 million.

“There was a house here,” the listing says, “so the water tap and sewer charges were paid.”

“For Sale” signs and open lots are full of possibilities – for some.

Every longtime resident knows friends who have been evicted. They didn’t have the money, the insurance or, in some cases, the stamina to carry out reconstructions.

The city has always attracted foreigners looking for second homes, mainly from Georgia. Now people come from further afield and rent to vacationers until they can retire. Some pay cash.

Shawna, 56, who will run the new Driftwood, said there was no affordable housing for store clerks and bartenders. She believes this is why she cannot fill two housekeeping positions or find a part-time office worker.

Her own daughter, unable to pay the rent, moved 25 minutes away to Callaway.

“We are no longer a sleepy little village,” Tom said. “We had so much publicity after the hurricane.”

The doors of the new Driftwood are heavy. The glass is thick. Sleek, modern furniture fills each room, instead of hand-picked antiques. Touch pads have replaced keys.

Summer rooms will cost between $325 and $425, about twice as much as before the storm. When Shawna posted the rates on Facebook, some people said they couldn’t wait. Others said they couldn’t afford it.

After the rebuild, Peggy, 81, said that was what the family needed to do. They will miss some of the regulars who made Driftwood so special. They bought the original inn for $138,000 in 1975, when it had only eight units.

They still don’t know how much their flood and wind insurance will cost, nor the property taxes. Liability insurance can be as high as $17,000 a year, about double what they used to pay, Shawna said.

In recent years, Tom and Peggy’s children feared their parents would not survive to see the hotel reopen.

Peggy was in a wheelchair the first weekend after breaking her hip. Tom was bouncing around, shaking hands and leaning on his polished wooden cane. He sipped Diet Coke and Coors Lights, noting blemishes, like a stain where water was dripping onto the upholstery. He called for help when the elevator broke down.

Bart, 59, thought his father looked younger, as if the challenge of rebuilding had brought Tom to life.

A select group of Mexico Beach residents showed up on opening weekend to celebrate the revival of the Driftwood with plates full of gumbo, shrimp, oysters and cakes.

Although the city – and the hotel – have changed dramatically, people who have managed to stay no longer talk so much in fear that Mexico Beach will lose its charm.

“If people live here, their hearts are racing,” said Cathey Parker Hobbs, a descendant of a town founder.

“You can’t hate people who take the opportunity to come and find their dream,” said Michael Scoggins, co-owner of Killer Seafood, a restaurant down the street that serves po’boys in a purchased custom trailer. after the storm. .

Bart looked around at the spacious Driftwood event hall, decorated with hanging wooden boats. Above the gumbo table, he spotted a model schooner he built when he was about 14 years old.

“There’s still a lot of history here,” he said.

Fingerprints of the Woods are everywhere, at least for those who know where to look: whimsical white cornices, paintings by Tom, a whimsical collection of birdhouses.

“Hopefully the Driftwood can create that friendly feeling,” Peggy said, like a bridge to the beach in Mexico City that existed before Michael.

Fifty years ago, the Driftwood was a dream.

Peggy moved from Atlanta to Mexico Beach, where her children couldn’t skip school without their mother finding out.

Bart, Shawna and Brandy helped clean the rooms.

Brandy, who pushed her parents to sell after Michael, was cleaning up for opening weekend when her own children noticed she had come full circle.

At 55, at the end of a career in corporate America, Brandy looks forward to hosting events at the new Driftwood, such as bingo nights and bachelorette parties. She and her husband got married at the old inn.

The Wood children all have homes in Mexico Beach. Christmas, they will spend at the hotel.

On the Saturday of opening weekend, Brandy woke up around 5:30 a.m. and went to Driftwood. A woman was sitting in the hall with her dog, waiting for coffee. Brandy apologized.

She lined reclining chairs, $475 each, along the deck and dabbed wine stains from the night before. She cooked breakfast.

Brandy looked over the beach and saw puffy clouds on the horizon. She felt the gulf breeze. She looked at the water, and she didn’t see a ripple.


Times writer Douglas R. Clifford contributed to this report.

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