This is Money Road, a pocked ribbon of asphalt that traverses some of the most storied land in the South, a sparsely populated route that hugs the dark Tallahatchie River closely and holds its secrets even closer. You won’t find a gas station here, and if you want a Coca-Cola, you’d best turn around. But thousands of tourists come here annually, seeking one of two places — Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church, where bluesman Robert Johnson is buried, or Bryant’s Grocery, where 14-year-old Emmett Till supposedly whistled at a white woman and was found in the river four days later with a 75-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck. It was 1955, and change had not yet come.
Mexico Beach was just a dot on the map before the Category 5 hurricane swept ashore with 160 mph winds pushing a 17.5-foot storm surge, obliterating everything in its path. It was a hidden jewel on Florida’s Forgotten Coast, and the residents – 1,072 based on the 2010 U.S. census – aimed to keep it that way. Now, with a storm-scoured slate, residents are not looking to rebuild bigger, just stronger.
The late afternoon sun bathes this gulf-front community in color. New condominiums, painted in shades of saltwater taffy, overlook turquoise water and a cotton-candy sky. But there are other colors, too, not so cheery. Blue tarps cover roofs and red-lettered “for sale” signs proliferate like a virus. The city is still struggling to regain its footing a year after Hurricane Michael’s ruthless assault left 852 of the town’s 1,900 homes substantially damaged or destroyed.
To James Miles, the abandoned bridge about a mile from his home is little more than a directional landmark. Most of the time, anyway. As Mississippi prepares for a Senate runoff on Tuesday, the structure known as the Hanging Bridge – where six African-Americans, including two pregnant women, were brutally lynched in 1918 and 1942 – has been heavy on his mind.
One month ago, hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle, laying waste to coastal cities such as Mexico Beach as well as places like Grand Ridge, 70 miles inland. It left thousands essentially homeless. They join a growing population of the storm-displaced, facing days of particular and peculiar challenges, from Bay County, Fla., to Pender County, N.C., 700 miles to the northeast. For many of these Americans, life has become a world of heartache as they wait for insurance settlements, hope for loans, and scratch together resources as the job market returns to normal.