Mexico Beach 'a diamond in the rough' one year after Hurricane Michael

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By Katie Kaplan, WCTV
October 10, 2019

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) -- The sounds of a typical afternoon for Bela and Jaques Sebastiao include hammering, drilling and the sounds of crashing waves.

The pair are residents of Mexico Beach, which was ground zero for Category 5 Hurricane Michael last year. Life has changed drastically since October 10, 2018. They now spend their days taking refuge from the Florida heat in the shade of their rented FEMA trailer, listening to the progress of their home and planning it's future.

"Right here, beach house cabinets," Bela said, while pointing to her Pinterest page on her smart phone.

The Sebastiaos are some of the lucky ones whose new home is already under construction.

"At the end of the day, you feel a little bit guilty because we all lost the houses on the same day, and we're not all going to get keys to the new houses on the same day," she told reporter Katie Kaplan while wiping away tears.

Perhaps their good fortune is a reward for their loyalty to the area. The Sebastiaos have been living near the ruble of their home since October 17, 2018, when residents were first let back in following the storm. Many of their neighbors have left.

"The first two weeks we slept in a van on a blow up mattress, then someone gave us a little tent, then somebody gave us a bigger tent," Bela said. "Then someone gave us a little camper and in January we got our FEMA trailer, which is this one."

Jaques said they pay $1,100 to rent the trailer while they wait for construction to be completed. It took them weeks to find a contractor without an inflated estimate on what the build would cost, they said. They finally found a company out of neighboring Port St. Joe and have a projected completion date of December 20, 2019.

A couple of miles down Highway 98, the co-owner of Mexico Beach icon 'Killer Seafood' now has his own trailer.

"We were buried by the condominiums across the street and that's what i found in our pile the day after the storm," said Michael Scoggins.

Scoggins has since cleared his lot of debris, flattened it and covered it with pebbles. A custom food truck is parked at the back.

"I figured this was the best way to get back into it," he said. "It's the quickest way to get the kitchen back up and running and it's the quickest way to get running with it."

The idea came as a lesson from the storm and was "born" out of an experience in the aftermath. Scoggins served meals from a food truck in the weeks that followed Hurricane Michael. Camp Happy Tummies, as it came to be known, served 1,200 meals a day to survivors, first responders, volunteers and contractors.

"If you were helping us in this town, you got fed," Scoggins said.

He plans to have the new style of business up and running within weeks. It will undoubtedly be a welcome sight to the reported 50 percent of year-round residents who have stayed.

"We had 17 restaurants before the storm and right now we have 4 of them back," said Kimberly Shoaf, the president of the Mexico Beach Community Development Council.

Shoaf said that while the progress is slow, it continues to move forward, but there is still a lot of rebuilding to be done. Mexico Beach's lone grocery store, two gas stations and four hotels have yet to reopen, she said.

"It feels different in the air, but it's not a sad feeling overall. It's a new, light kind of feeling that things are getting better," she said.

She believes that at this time the town is ripe for day-trippers. Several quaint shops have reopened and the white-sand beaches are clean, empty and ready for the crowds.

The sound of progress has been replaced by crashing waves, but for those who remain, Mexico beach is still a refuge.

"It's on a FEMA trailer, but at the end of the day I look to my left and I see the ocean and it makes it all better," Bela said.

Mexico Beach is a diamond in the rough to those who knew her before the storm.