Devastated Mexico Beach will be back, but different: mayor

MEXICO BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) - Mexico Beach, the seafront Florida resort town shattered by Hurricane Michael, will be rebuilt “100 percent”, its mayor said on Friday.

A foundation of a ruined home is pictured following Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida, U.S., October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

But the community, void of condominium high rises and hotel chains, is bound to be built differently to limit future damage, Mayor Al Cathey said.

“We’re going to lose some of the quaintness that we had, in the old cottage style houses,” he told Reuters as he surveyed the damage in his truck. “But we’ll be newer and improved.”

Nearly entire blocks of small two-story houses were swept away during the hurricane, presumably by storm surges that reached up to nine feet (2.7 meters). Some larger bungalows and multi-story buildings survived.

Those that withstood the storm were likely built or raised after Florida overhauled its building codes in 2001, Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told CNN on Friday. Local and state officials must be proactive in passing the necessary regulations, he said.

“It’s OK if you want to live on the coast or on top of a mountain that sees wildfires or whatever, but you have to build to a higher standard ... If we’re going to rebuild, do it right,” Long said.

The immediate challenges for Mexico Beach residents who were picking through the remains of their homes were a lack of power, water and phone service, and no nearby sources of food and gasoline.

“I don’t know if we can rebuild or not, depends on the insurance,” said Marcie Miller, a real estate agent from Georgia, removing valuables from the shell of her house. “And now they’re talking about changing the building code.”

Insurance usually covers the cost of a home, but not the expense of rebuilding to stricter construction codes.

A second residence owned by Marcie and her husband Pete, a farmer, a two-story duplex, was tossed in two large pieces a city block from a double lot that the family has owned since 1957.

Some residents who were nervously trickling back on Friday said they hoped the place, nicknamed “the Forgotten Coast,” does not change too much.

“It was the perfect beach town. Not all of that commercialism,” said Dottie Sinclair, 57, a nurse, adding that one Subway fast-food restaurant was the only commercial chain.

“I don’t think it will ever be the same,” said husband Danny Sinclair, 64, who is semi-retired. “People will just pack up and leave.”

Mexico Beach, is one of many white-sand beaches along the Florida Panhandle, but unlike communities like Panama City Beach, it has no large scale resorts run by big chains.

While it will be different, the mayor said he hopes to keep Mexico Beach’s law preventing buildings taller than four floors.

“If we do that then the big guys won’t be interested in us,” Cathey said.

The mayor rode out the hurricane in his house, which was unscathed, but the hardware store he owns was leveled.

A search and rescue operation led by FEMA had not found any Mexico Beach fatalities as of Friday morning, authorities said. Residents who returned were not giving up on their home.

“I hope they rebuild it. It’s a wonderful community,” said Roger Wiggins, 66, a retired maintenance worker.

“It’s just going to take years.”

Reporting by Rod Nickel; Editing by Sandra Maler