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.
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.
In Port Aransas, schools had only been in session a few days when the storm hit, replacing beach-happy bliss with cataclysmic chaos. Boats lay strewn across the roadways, draped in live electrical wires. Dead fish littered the high school track. Natural gas mingled with ground water. More than 2,500 homes in the city of 4,000 residents were heavily damaged or destroyed.
The two brothers stand in the carport in Huntsville, Ala., and stare up at the cloudy sky, scuffing their shoes against the concrete and frowning. If it rains, they won’t be able to cut grass. A black SUV pulls into the driveway, and their frowns turn to smiles as they rush to greet the man inside — Rodney Smith Jr., whose grin is even bigger than theirs.