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500 days: Mexico Beach, county 'growing back and not backing up’

Jacqueline Bostick
jbostick@pcnh.com
Walton Sun

MEXICO BEACH — The opening of one new store, a single residential complex, or the Salt Creek Bridge are milestones in Mexico Beach — a city flattened on Oct. 10, 2018 by one of the nation's most vicious hurricanes.

February 22 marked the 500th-day of Hurricane Michael. After millions of cubic yards of debris have been pushed away, the crests of progress can be seen as the wave of development becomes more visible for the Mexico Beach shoreline.

“There's been a lot of progress in some places and then there's other places it feels it just hasn't moved a heck of lot,” said Mexico Beach City Manager Mario Gisbert.

The opening up of the canal, marina, boat ramp and beach access points are “great morale boosters” he said. However, many property owners are still fighting with insurance companies, causing a stall in development — “and those things make it tough to say things are great.”

“Things are better,” he said, emphasizing the last word.

Foundational concepts are being realized and will bring back a thriving, storm-hardened Mexico Beach that didn’t exist prior to Hurricane Michael.

Related: First new grocery to open in Mexico Beach since Hurricane Michael

At Saturday’s 21st Annual Gumbo Cook-Off, the city, in a partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, releaseD a 52-page study about plans for all seven of the city’s parks. The presentation will also include the design for a master storm water system.

The design “is really knocking-it-out-of-the-park because the eastern portion of the city suffered a lot of flooding through storm surge,” Gisbert said. “And if that master storm water design reroutes the flows the way its supposed to, it would close off the Eight Street canal, and it would keep fresh water and tannin from going into the Gulf of Mexico.”

The city is also looking to a $500,000 appropriation from state legislators to go toward an $8 million project to rebuild the city pier, which also beckons funding from the federal government. The city is currently working on adding a jetty at the canal — hoping to diminish some of the compounded silt issues.

GALLERY: Hurricane Recovery in Mexico Beach

“The new city pier would be far better because it would be better to withstand the storm,” Gisbert said. “The jetty at the entrance to the canal would be far better because it would be much less susceptible to closure.”

Over time, Gisbert expects the funding for temporary fixes — such as a temporary fire station and bank — to evolve into permanent ones.

“The city has gone a long way in getting money through FEMA and the state, but we're still short of funds,” Gisbert said, noting the city still has a lot of debt. “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel that the funds will come through, but it's a ... pain-staking process.”

In addition to the progress at the infrastructural level, new developments, including a 1,000-unit residential village by St. Joe Company, the reconstruction of the El Governor Motel and RV Park, and the recently approved development order for The Mexico Beach Market — the only brick-and-mortar store in the city to open soon — the future is still very promising.

“Homes are being rebuilt and brand new homes are coming back up,” Gisbert said. “The condos are rebuilding and they're all coming on line little by little. We see a lot of buildings being completed that have been under construction for the last 500 days.”

“To me one of the biggest success is a single homeowner getting back in his home, that is a roaring success,” he added.

Bay County Manager Bob Majka said the pace of development across the county is steady, but remains a challenging point.

The county’s top three priorities are: housing, maintaining financial solvency and economic development.

“We said from the very day of the storm, the recovery process is going to be a marathon and not a sprint,” he said. Recovery for most disasters take “15 years in other communities.”

“We're not subjecting ourselves to that pace because that's the norm or the average,” he said. “We've set a more aggressive pace, to be back by the five-year mark.”

The county is the primary recipient of federal recovery dollars for the municipalities, with Panama City being the exception. The county has received 78% of reimbursement from FEMA and has already paid back $1 million of a $250 million loan for recovery, avoiding a non-reimbursable interest expense.

“We've got another $8 million in expenditures this year since October (last year) that we have encumbered. And that is being prepared to be submitted to FEMA for reimbursement,” Majka noted.

In total, the county has received $206 million for recovery. Also, $2.5 billion has been allocated for the total rebuild of Tyndall Air Force Base.

Majka said that’s a sign of a local, state, and national commitment to bringing back a better region.

“People have not just talked the talk, they’ve walked the walk,” he said. All of this progress is “positive indicators that while we're still not where we were before the storm, we're growing back and we're not backing up.”

This story originally published to newsherald.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.