Hurricane season began June 1 and intensifies in late summer when Atlantic and Gulf waters warm. Gulf Coast residents hope for peaceful waters until the official season ends November 30.
That didn’t happen in 2018. A low pressure formed in the southwestern Caribbean on October 1 and slowly developed until it closed in on Cuba. Once it hit the open Gulf, it transformed into a Category 5 storm headed straight for the Florida Panhandle, with peak winds of 160 miles per hour.
Hurricane Michael was the first Category 5 storm to make landfall in the Florida Panhandle and one of the strongest storms to ever hit the contiguous United States.
Ground zero was Mexico Beach and Tyndall Air Force Base.
But the storm reached to Panama City to the northwest, Port St. Joe to the south and the interior of the Panhandle before heading to other areas in the southeastern United States.
Although great strides have been made to rebuild in the nearly two years since Hurricane Michael, many Gulf Coast towns are still struggling. Recovery has been slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Mexico Beach’s top economic industry is tourism, and we are continuing to see visitors return to our area to show support for our rebuild efforts,” says Kimberly Shoaf, president of the Mexico Beach Community Development Council. “We have accommodations that range from single-family homes to condos, as well as an RV park and townhomes. While we do not have any motels/hotels, we anticipate the El Governor Motel to reopen in the first quarter of 2021.”
Although Mexico Beach still lacks public restrooms and shower facilities for beachgoers—and gas stations—beaches and waterways, restaurants, grocery stores and boutique shops are open, Kimberly says.
In neighboring Port St. Joe, homes, businesses and vacation rentals were damaged.
“The biggest impact was the loss of the state park campground on the peninsula, which is usually open 365 days a year,” says Kristy Grove, marketing director at Gulf County Tourist Development Council. “It has yet to reopen. That really hit us hard in regard to tax revenue.”
Most businesses in Port St. Joe are locally owned and have returned, Kristy says, noting restaurants emptied their freezers and fed the community while they restored their buildings.
Vacation rentals are 70% back in service, and the town offers two hotels. One, the boutique Port Inn, is still being renovated.
“We are very busy with visitors after the COVID shutdown and the ban on vacation rentals being lifted,” says Kelli Goodwin, executive director of Gulf County Tourist Development Council. “We have a messaging campaign focused on ‘Let’s Wade In Together’ with safe travel resources.”
The storm’s western eyewall blew through Panama City and St. Andrews State Park, but Panama City Beach to the west survived fairly well, says Dan Rowe, president and CEO of Panama City Beach.
“Last summer was a normal summer for us,” Dan says. “We are seeing a lot of demand. It is still too early to tell if we will get back to our normal summer business levels. So far, everyone seems to be balancing the CDC guidelines on social distancing and other personal responsibility measures, while still having fun on their vacations.”
Kimberly says most visitors to the Forgotten Coast are regulars who are loyal to their favorite beach vacation spots.
“COVID-19 has created some barriers to our visitors; however, the practice of safe health and social distancing is being followed,” Kimberly says. “We are thankful for summer visitors, and this summer compared to last summer is a great boost.
“Construction continues on homes and businesses, as well as our continued beach nourishment projects. Mexico Beach continues to move forward in a positive direction, and we hope that by summer 2021 it will be that much better—more familiar and have a feeling of accomplishment on how far we have come.
“We are so thankful that those who have come to know and love Mexico Beach year after year continue to do so and are making plans to come back and vacation with us. Our beaches are still breathtaking and our sunsets are ones you must experience for yourself—and we are ready for you.”