FL - Five years after Hurricane Michael, cities hit hardest enjoy record tourism
MEXICO BEACH, Fla. — The scars are less visible now. Kimberly Shoaf recalls an unaware tourist recently asking her about the vacant lots along the beach. Ignorance may indeed be bliss, but it's something she'll never enjoy here.
"I don't think you'll ever be able to drive through and not think about it because there are landmarks that are just sadly they're never coming back."
There were 1,200 full-time residents in this small beach community when Hurricane Michael made landfall here in October 2018. Five years later, there is a little over 900.
"Some families are still just sitting and waiting, trying to figure out what they really want to do," explained Shoaf, who serves on the Mexico Beach Community Development Council.
Work continues nearby to repair the damage to Tyndal Air Force Base, a major employer along this stretch of Florida's panhandle. It was always going to take years to rebuild here but there was one thing which nobody could have foreseen: A global pandemic.
"When you're trying to rebuild a whole entire community and the world shuts down, it was just like another punch in the gut. It was hard. People stopped working because you had to of course and then when things started to pick back up it wasn't immediate."
The pandemic significantly impacted supply chains, manpower and the flow of federal aid in an area which was already facing a housing shortage. Still, there is progress.
The El Governor Motel, an annual destination of loyal tourists for nearly 25 years was destroyed during the hurricane. It reopened in June with 80% capacity and hopes to be at full capacity soon.
Other landmarks are still missing including the city's public pier. A project to rebuild it is in place but has yet to break ground.
"It was a staple of the community and it's a sad staple that 's not returned," Shoaf said. "It's going to return, it's getting there, it's in its final approval stages of FEMA and so once that get's done, hopefully sometime soon it can bid it out and then the construction can begin."
TOURISTS RETURN IN RECORD NUMBERS
Panama City Beach Councilman Phil Chester knows there is one universal truth in this part of the Florida panhandle.
"The beach is the engine that runs Bay County."
60% of all tax revenue in the county comes from tourism dollars. The numbers appear to show tourists are coming back to these beaches. Mexico Beach had a record year in revenue which surpassed totals before Hurricane Michael. In Panama City Beach, the record numbers seen during the COVID-19 pandemic as people sought an escape from social distancing have leveled off but remain high relative to before landfall in 2018.
Panama City Beach was spared the more significant damage seen to the east in Panama City. Chester explained how both communities were impacted by what followed,
"We did lose some workers because there was not any place to stay or rent or whatever but the buildings, they're coming back, they're building apartments, they're building affordable housing, different types of housing is coming up in town which is great for business and the beach."
A beach revitalization project began after Labor Day along St. Andrew's Park. The City of Mexico Beach has raised $15 million of the $25 million which is needed for an extensive beach revitalization spanning the entire community.