The one hundred miles or so of Florida’s Panhandle that curves from Mexico Beach to St. Marks has long been known as the Forgotten Coast for its quiet and relatively undeveloped shoreline. Now, nearly eight months after Hurricane Michael barreled through the region last October, the moniker has taken on a whole new meaning. “A lot of us here feel like we’ve been forgotten so quickly,” says David Kiser, the owner of Caribbean Coffee in Mexico Beach. The town was all but leveled by the Category 5 storm, but, “we were out of the news in a week and a half.” Since the demand for contractors significantly outweighs the supply, and relatively little funding has been allocated to recovery, Kiser’s is one of only about a dozen small businesses in town that are up and running.
“We opened back up on November 19,” Kiser says. “We weren’t in good shape, but we opened anyway.” After covering the broken windows with plywood and patching up holes in the wall, Kiser and his team were ready to serve espressos and frappes again. But while there’s been an influx of construction workers and loyal locals, tourism, predictably, has taken a huge dip since the storm. “[Business] this month compared to the same month last year—I think abysmal would be the right word,” Kiser says.
Others, like Michael Scoggins, who has owned the beloved Killer Seafood for the last fifteen years, can’t rebuild yet at all; Highway 98, where his restaurant was located, is closed for repairs. “They say it’ll be done by mid-July, but who knows,” he says. With no tourists in town, taking out a bank loan for construction doesn’t make sense to Scoggins, anyway. “Right now, we think we might put a food trailer on the slab of land for the next two years or so and wait for the infrastructure of the rest of the town to come back.”
Although most are playing a waiting game, Mexico Beach is still moving forward—however slowly—thanks to a series of helpers. “After a disaster like this, people always say ‘I wish I could do something,’” says Alex Workman. A Tallahassee-based brand developer, Workman, along with his wife, Chelsea, started the Never Forgotten Coast project to give voice to Mexico Beach’s small business owners. Inspired initially by Chelsea’s father, the owner of the charter fishing company KC Sportfishing, the Workmans set out to humanize the disaster in order to rally support and raise funds. “We had a skill and a platform, and now we have a cause. The greatest way to feed long-term recovery is to help small businesses.”
In mid-November, the Workmans, along with the photographer Jeremy Cowart, spent time in Mexico Beach documenting the stories of eighteen local companies that were devastated by the storm. Six months later, they added an “updates” page with drone photos to show what’s changed (and what hasn’t). Another tab marks the restaurants, lodging, entertainment, retail, and other points of interest that have reopened. The project also raises money for a microgrant program, which has already donated thirty thousand dollars to small businesses in town.
The Workmans aren’t the only ones who stepped up. “Heroes came out of everywhere,” Scoggins, of Killer Seafood, says. The St. Simons Island, Georgia, chefs Dave Snyder and Francisco Jimenez teamed up with Scoggins to set up shop in Mexico Beach for six and a half weeks, serving hot food to first responders. Corbin and Seth Ringley, who own a catering company in Dallas, have spent family vacations in Mexico Beach for their entire lives. After the storm, “they hooked up a trailer and came down here to serve food for a month,” Scoggins says. “Then, Lisa Medin Fitzpatrick, an artist from central Florida, hand-painted signs for all the businesses. It really touched a lot of hearts.”
There’s one crucial action, though, that locals think will spur the recovery process more than anything else: “Come down and enjoy the place,” Scoggins says. Workman agrees: “People can show up for a day. The beaches are still beautiful; get a coffee at Caribbean Coffee, have lunch at Crazy Beach Pizza, go on a charter with KC Sportfishing, have dinner at Mango Marley’s, then go spend the night at Panama City Beach. The greatest thing someone can do to help is go.”