ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Out to Mexico Beach, Fla. It's been a year since the small coastal town was in the headlines. That's because it's just a few miles from where Hurricane Michael, one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to hit the U.S., made landfall. Three people died there, and the storm wrecked the sleepy beach community. NPR's Greg Allen visited Mexico Beach recently, where there are signs the town is beginning to rebuild.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: The sugar white beaches here are wide and inviting but now are mostly empty. More than three-quarters of the homes in Mexico Beach were destroyed or left uninhabitable. A year later, many of the buildings that remain are just shells, lacking roofs, windows and walls. The rubble is mostly gone, leaving empty lots behind. In some cases, entire blocks are empty. But here and there, homes are being rebuilt.
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AL CATHEY: We've got over 30 new building permits that have been issued, things starting to come out of the ground - new homes, new roofs.
ALLEN: That's Al Cathey. He's the mayor of Mexico Beach and the owner of one of the few businesses open in town, the hardware store. Cathey's store is busy. Customers are getting new keys made. Others are picking up lumber, drywall and nails.
CATHEY: Family business - between here and the city, I got a lot happening.
ALLEN: Cathey grew up in Mexico Beach. It's always been small - just 1,200 residents before the storm. Homes were passed down from one generation to the next, he says, but since Michael, he sees signs that's changing.
CATHEY: Some of the younger generation may not have the attachment to Mexico Beach that their parents or grandparents had. We've had about 160 property sales since Michael.
SHAPIRO: Many of those are empty lots, some of them beachfront. But Cathey says land prices are back where they were before the storm, and for every property on the market, there are typically two or three buyers.
CATHEY: So we're very pleased. For myself, I'm going to lose some good customers, some old-time friends, but, you know, we'll make new ones.
ALLEN: One concern is maintaining the small-town character as Mexico Beach rebuilds. Cathey says the town has rejected proposals from developers who want to rezone properties for multi-story condos and apartments. Down the road from the hardware store, Kimberly Shoaf staffs Mexico Beach's welcome center. It's been a slow summer, she says. With few places in town to stay, tourism has been practically nonexistent. But people come by, she says, to check on the town's progress.
KIMBERLY SHOAF: Our visitors have been coming in, inquiring about the businesses that have reopened, places to stay, inquiring of their favorite dive spot - if it's coming back, when it's coming back.
ALLEN: Mexico Beach spent some $30 million dredging and removing debris from its canal and marina, which Shoaf says has begun bringing back sport fishermen and scuba divers. But at Mango Marley, a food truck outside a restaurant that's slowly being renovated, Jessica Schwark is more blunt.
JESSICA SCHWARK: Summer was terrible.
ALLEN: Mostly, she says, that was because of the heat and working in a food truck with no air conditioning. It's been open since a month after the storm, and Schwark has been there most days since. She says she spends a lot of time talking to visitors about the hurricane and how it's changed the town.
SCHWARK: Each customer that comes up to me like, this is my first time back in town, and we can relate. You know, we've been there, and it's kind of hard now to remember what things look like, really.
ALLEN: Activity in Mexico Beach has dropped off, Schwark says, since the debris has mostly been removed. That's because, as she says, anyone who come and clean up, but not anyone can build a house. Protracted negotiations with insurance companies and the scarcity of available contractors means rebuilding here in Mexico Beach and elsewhere in Florida's Panhandle will go slowly. Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey...
CATHEY: It's going to take five years to drive through our city, and the memory and the collateral or the residual damage from Michael won't be something you'll think about. I think you'll be talking about what we have instead of what we don't have.
ALLEN: As for today's anniversary of Hurricane Michael, Cathey says there's a community get-together planned. It won't be a celebration, he says, but a time to reflect on how far the town has come and how far it still has to go in its recovery from a storm that nearly wiped it off the map.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Mexico Beach, Fla.
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