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First Coast News: 'Our quality of life is not for sale... we will stay true to who we are'

MEXICO BEACH, Fla — Nearly ten months after Hurricane Michael made landfall near Mexico Beach, Fla., life in the small quaint town is far from back to normal.  

During the summer months, the population usually swells to 3,000 to 5,000 people, but Mayor Al Cathey says this summer, there are only about 400 people here.

“Eighty percent of our city was destroyed," Cathey said. "We had about 2,700 living units here. We have less than 500 that are standing. We had a 17.5-foot storm surge and 160 mph winds, and Mexico Beach is not made for that."

In the six decades he has lived in Mexico Beach, he’s never seen a storm cause as much destruction as Hurricane Michael. He rode it out in his home.

“It sort of took me to my knees," he said. "Every landmark for 66 years I had known, Frank on the corner with the blue roof, that’s how we described things. There was no Frank on the corner there was no Sally who had the nice mailbox. My older son’s house was gone. Our business was gone and I’m the mayor.”

The Category 5 storm that rapidly intensified last October left the coastal Panhandle town in a pile of debris. While progress is being made here there are still years of work to be done.

“You draw the short straw sometimes, and that’s what happened to us," Cathey said. "We lost so much of our city, not only our homes and possessions but city-wide we lost our water tank, our police and fire buildings, our Civic Center which was our gathering place."

While he now operates his Ace Hardware store out of a warehouse, nearby, a popular brick and mortar restaurant, Mango Marley’s, has reopened in a food truck. Others though like the Fish House Restaurant are still shutdown. 

Mishelle McPherson who lived here for 35 years and worked at the Fish House says so many people in this community are hurting.

“Like so many people here the insurance company hasn’t paid their claims," McPherson said. "They’re fighting with bills. Was it wind or water? Was it flood, and all the companies are giving them such a hard time to pay out their claims, and people think it’s going to be rebuilt fast, but we are still struggling."

But the people here are resilient and determined to return Mexico Beach to what it once was.

“I want them to know we are here," Cathey said. "We plan to be here. We aren’t going anywhere. We are going to have the same quaint, charming unique little town we had, and our quality of life is not for sale, and it won’t be for sale and we will stay true to who we are.”

The big lesson the mayor said he learned through all of this is be ready and when you’re told to evacuate, leave. The bottom line is you can’t control Mother Nature and if you wait too long you may not be able to get out of harm’s way, he said.

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