'We built it for the big one’: How this Mexico Beach house survived Hurricane Michael

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer
October 25, 2018, 2:19:31 PM EDT

Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida Panhandle and into Georgia after making landfall on Wednesday, Oct. 10.

Mexico Beach, Florida, was among the hardest-hit locations. The city was almost completely flattened from the storm. However, amid the incredible destruction, one home stood high on stilts above the wreckage, appearing largely untouched and pristine.

It is no coincidence that this house survived. Dr. Lebron Lackey, a radiologist from Cleveland, Tennessee, and his uncle, Russell King, an attorney from Chattanooga, built this house with the intention of it surviving a monster hurricane, or "the big one."

The construction of the home started in 2017 and ended this April. The home is known as the Sand Palace, and it has its own Facebook page.

“It’s the first house that either one of us had ever built,” Lackey told AccuWeather. “We both enjoy the beach and vacation time. But we were aware that we were building a structure that would potentially be in harm’s way.”

(AccuWeather/ Jonathan Petramala)

Surrounded by ruins, one house, known as the Sand Palace, remains unscathed by Hurricane Michael.

(AccuWeather/ Jonathan Petramala)

Surrounded by ruins, one house, known as the Sand Palace, remains unscathed by Hurricane Michael.

(AccuWeather/ Jonathan Petramala)

Surrounded by ruins, one house, known as the Sand Palace, remains unscathed by Hurricane Michael.

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Mike Jackson sifts through debris looking for remnants of his home which was destroyed by hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla., Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018.

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

A home stands damaged from hurricane Michael as members of a South Florida urban search and rescue team look for survivors in Mexico Beach, Fla., Friday, Oct. 12, 2018.

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

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/Chris O'Meara)

Homes are left swept off their foundations from the effects of Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida. Michael made landfall Wednesday as a Category 4 hurricane with 155 mph winds and a storm surge of 9 feet.

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

People walk amidst destruction on the main street of Mexico Beach, Fla., in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018.

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Rescue personnel perform a search in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla., Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018.

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

A search and rescue team walks past a debris pile from hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla., Friday, Oct. 12, 2018.

“Just like you put on your seat belt every day when you get in the car to get you ready for something that hopefully never happens, we built a house for something we hoped would never happen,” Lackey said.

Hurricane Michael wreaked havoc through the community earlier this month, testing the construction of the home.

“We built it for the big one, but we had no idea that the big one would come so soon and come barreling right down on Mexico Beach like it did,” Lackey said.

When constructing the home, every decision was made with the conscious thought of its functionality and survival in the event of a hurricane. From pilings, to the roof and everything in between, the homeowners made decisions with the home's fortitude in mind.

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Lackey and King went above and beyond the state building codes. They built it with the intention that it would survive a massive storm like Michael.

State code in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 required that houses have to be built to withstand 120-mph winds. However, the Sand Palace was built to withstand about 240- to 250-mph winds, Lackey said.

“We were told using 30-foot pilings would be adequate by folks that already knew we were trying to build a hurricane-proof house,” Lackey said. “And when it came time to buy those pilings, we asked, ‘How much would it be if we went 40 feet?’ and the incremental cost really was not that much.”

The walls are made of poured concrete on top of 40-foot pilings. Rebar is placed through all of the walls to increase stability. Steel cables go from the girders above the pilings through the roof and continue down the other side of the back wall, Lackey said.

Lackey estimates that the additions cost about 15 percent to 20 percent more than usual.

When asked if he would recommend paying these extra costs to build a hurricane-proof home in a vulnerable area, Lackey responded with confidence.

“The recommendation is 100 percent. I would definitely recommend that those homes be built similar to ours. I mean that without a doubt,” Lackey said.

mexico beach damage hurricane michael

Firefighter Austin Schlarb performs a door to door search in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla., Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

While the house survived the storm largely unscathed, there were still damages. Lackey described these damages as expected.

“When you are building a dwelling, you accept the idea that some parts that you're going to build are genuinely going to be used as breakaway,” Lackey said. “You intend those to break away, and other parts tend to be permanent.”

According to Sand Palace Facebook page, the ground floor and the stairs up to the middle floor are gone, along with windows in one of the bedrooms. All the utilities have to be redone, and one of the heating and air units is gone.

“As we rebuild these features that were impacted, we may actually make some changes. My partner and I have already talked about improvements to be made,” Lackey said.

The destruction is negligible in comparison to much of the neighborhood, in which many homes are completely flattened.

“It’s mind boggling. That level of devastation is just not something you ever expect to see," Lackey said. "It's like a bomb went off. Everything's flat and debris is pushed up. It used to be homes.”

Lackey said that he and his family fell in love with Mexico Beach and its community.

“I had tears in my eyes before I even reached my house. And those weren't tears of joy that my house made it, those were tears of sadness to see my town had been impacted the way they had,” Lackey said.

According to Lackey, much of the community is planning to rebuild and he hopes they do.

“We want the resiliency of our house to hopefully reach toward the resiliency of our community,” Lackey said. “I would be proud for that because I love Mexico Beach and the people and neighbors, and I want them all to come back.”

Lackey was not at the Sand Palace during the storm, but watched the storm through a security camera. While Lackey built his home with the idea of it being hurricane-proof, he stresses the importance of following evacuation orders.

“We built what we thought was a hurricane-proof home, so we would have something to come back to, not so that we would have something to stay at,” Lackey said.

He returned to Mexico Beach after the storm had passed, and has since allowed first responders to use the Sand Palace as a shelter and a place to gather resources.

“We have opened our doors to them for whatever purposes they find suitable,” Lackey said. “We're willing to help out in any way we can.”

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