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Mexico Beach's recovery from Hurricane Michael is 'moving forward every day,' but it will take years to prepare for tourism

By Kevin Byrne, AccuWeather staff writer
March 05, 2019, 2:10:19 PM EST

Nearly five months after Hurricane Michael’s catastrophic impacts on the Florida Panhandle, resort communities are gearing up for the return of spring break visitors, but some are faring better than others.

The hurricane made landfall in Mexico Beach, on Oct. 10, with a strength that fell just short of Category 5 status. It was the strongest storm on record to hit the panhandle and the third-strongest storm to make landfall in the history of the United States with a minimum central pressure of 27.13 inches of mercury.

Catie Feeney, public relations manager for Visit Panama City Beach told AccuWeather that tourism, pre and post storm, serves as the main economic driver for Bay County, bringing in $2.7 billion in total economic impact. The organization is currently encouraging visitors to travel to the area as it would in previous years.

panama city florida damage

An excavator tears down a damaged home from Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Fla, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Feeney said spring travelers usually start arriving to Panama City Beach in March and the number only increases into the summer months.

"For every 90 visitors in Florida, a job is created and in Bay County, we have over 17 million visitors in Panama City Beach each year," Feeney said. "Tourism promotes job growth and economic stability for our community and it will be supplying a large portion of the county’s revenue moving forward post Hurricane Michael."

"Filling hotels, restaurants, events and activities throughout the beach is providing jobs for Bay County residents," she said.

Panama City Beach ended up relatively unscathed from Michael, unlike other areas such as Panama City, Mexico Beach and Port St. Joe.

“Panama City Beach received minimal damage from Hurricane Michael, and close to 95 percent of our businesses have been up and running since the storm,” Feeney said.

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According to the Pensacola News Journal, visitation for spring break 2019 in Pensacola Beach is expected to be larger than normal.

Visit Pensacola Beach President Steve Hayes told the News Journal that many families who lost their homes are staying in condos and hotels in the Panama City Beach area. This has resulted in less hotel availability in the city, causing some guests to book rooms in Pensacola Beach.

"Those displaced families are taking up inventory and that has driven some of our occupancy," Hayes said.

Feeney said conditions are improving each day in surrounding areas of Bay County, and families are starting to move back into their homes.

"Moving forward, Visit Panama City Beach continues our mission of inviting visitors and their families to the beach," she said.

The state tourism agency, Visit Florida, issued an emergency grant program to assist local tourist development boards in areas that were severely impacted by Hurricane Michael. It aims to help increase visitation once hurricane-damaged areas are open to visitors through advertising across print, broadcast, social media and other mediums, according to the Visit Florida website.

panama city double photo hurricane michael

This combination photo taken Oct. 16, 2018, top, shows residents using flashlights to navigate the dark walkways at night at the damaged American Quality Lodge where they continue to live without power days after Hurricane Michael hit Panama City, Fla., and the same corridor littered with debris while the motel is cleaned out Jan. 23, 2019, bottom. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

In Panama City, damage was more extensive than the beach area. Several hotels are still dealing with damage, according to WJHG.

Jennifer Vigil, CEO and president of Destination Panama City told WJHG that they anticipate "a full recovery for ourselves by next year." About 70 percent of the city's hotel room inventory was lost in the wake of Michael.

"We expect about 50 percent of our room inventory to be back open by Memorial Day and about 85 percent by Labor Day," Vigil said. That other 15 percent will be just lost room inventory."

Recovery 'moving forward every day' in Mexico Beach

While the Pensacola and Panama City Beach areas were largely spared from Michael’s devastation, that wasn’t the case in Mexico Beach, which suffered a direct hit.

In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, officials bluntly said the city was “gone.” Utter devastation had come over the old-fashioned community known for its small-town, family-friendly atmosphere.

kimberly shoaf mexico beach visitors center

The Mexico Beach Visitors Center as seen in November 2018. It has since been demolished. (Photo/Kimberly Shoaf)

Debris collection is ongoing and mosquitoes have been a problem in the area, according to the town’s official Facebook page. Bay County mosquito control technicians have been treating ditches and low-lying areas.

Despite the hardships many have experienced, Kimberly Shoaf, president of the Mexico Beach Community Development Council, said recovery and cleanup efforts are “going well.”

“Recovery has been moving forward every day,” Shoaf told AccuWeather.

A 90-day moratorium on building permits for new construction projects was lifted in February. Now those who are focused on rebuilding efforts can start that process, according to Shoaf.

While there are good days and bad days in the community of 1,200 year-round residents, for the most part morale is up as they lean on each other to get back to their feet.

Mexico Beach Hurricane Michael

Damaged homes are seen along the water's edge in the aftermath of hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla., Friday, Oct. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The city isn’t one of the more typical commercialized spring break destinations that are popular havens for college students. Instead, it’s more of a destination for families with small to preteen-aged children.

Still, while tourism is a big deal for the city, especially for businesses that cater specifically to tourists, Shoaf said whatever revenue the city receives for the remainder of the year will be “a drop in the bucket” compared to what they normally brought in pre-Michael, adding that it’s going to be a “very significant loss.”

Three of the four hotels in town were destroyed. The fourth is salvageable, with repairs underway, but it likely won’t be able to reopen until spring/summer 2020 and that’s “pushing it,” according to Shoaf.

The marketing strategy is different in the area this year. Shoaf said it’s geared toward showing those who love Mexico Beach what the city has overcome and where the city is in its recovery phase.

“It’s going to take some time, and it will be some time until we’re back. It will probably be a good two, three years ‘til we’re back to even I would say 80-90 percent of where we once were.”

Unlike other tourism boards, the Mexico Beach Community Development Council didn’t receive any funds from the Visit Florida grant simply because they’re not ready yet. But officials hope to get funding in the next fiscal year and they remain encouraged about what's ahead.

“Our spirits are high," Shoaf said. "We’re going to get back to where we were and we’re excited for the new era that we’re getting to step into.”

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