MEXICO BEACH — Almost eight months after Hurricane Michael wrecked this small waterfront town, tourism is gradually returning.
A small crowd relaxed Thursday on the sandy shores of the quaint community, enjoying the sun and close view of the Gulf of Mexico. Though plenty of buildings remain damaged, the area has come a long way since the initial days after the Category 5 hurricane made landfall.
Seasonal tourists are coming back to Bay County as the temperatures soar, and while Mexico Beach doesn’t have the volume of activity of Panama City Beach, beach chairs and tents are visible while driving along U.S. 98.
Sean and Laurie Mims of Columbus, Georgia, said they visit Mexico Beach and Cape San Blas every year. This trip is their first time in Mexico Beach since Hurricane Michael.
“This part of the beach is just not crowded, and it’s just really pretty,” Laurie Mims said.
“It looks like they’re building pretty fast,” Sean Mims said. “A lot of the restaurants we used to go to are back up. It looks like it kind of hit some places and didn’t hit the other places hard.”
Laurie Mims followed the aftermath on Facebook, and said they didn’t think things would be up and running by now.
“We haven’t really noticed much difference,” Sean Mims said.
“We hope it builds back up,” Laurie Mims said.
Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey said the town had a big crowd for the recent Memorial Day weekend.
“We’re still a place that people want to come to,” Cathey said. “Most of them are here for the day because there’s no place to stay.”
Even with roadwork happening on U.S. 98, people still are finding a way to get to the beach, Cathey said.
“We’re excited people haven’t forgotten us,” he said.
Business owner David Kiser tells a different story. Kiser runs Caribbean Coffee and said while he sees tourists mainly on Saturdays, numbers so far are “drastically” down compared to past years.
“We’ve got several problems in Mexico Beach. One is lack of parking. If you go right at the Gulf County line, you’ll see it’s very crowded right there because it’s adequate parking,” Kiser said.
Plans are underway for new parking spaces along U.S. 98, which Kiser thinks will help.
“Monday afternoon I looked across the street and there were a lot of people parked on private property, which that could be an issue too. There’s nowhere to park,” Kiser said. “Before you could park along 98 and walk to the beach through one of the boardwalks. That’s gone and in effect the road is closed now. Until they open the road back up, we’re going to have an issue. That’s to be expected.”
Kiser also noted debris haulers and disaster recovery workers are leaving and haven’t been replaced. Disaster recovery workers were a common sight in Mexico Beach and Bay County in the immediate months after Hurricane Michael because of the amount of debris and destruction.