Introduction by Alex Workman | Photography by Jeremy Cowart
Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle in October 2018 and left the town of Mexico Beach, Florida, completely devastated. A team of storytellers from Tallahassee partnered with individuals and entities from around the country to do something to help. They started the Never Forgotten Coast campaign, which created T-shirts for purchase and a website where survivors could share their stories. Through generous donations from people like you, they can help get the community back up and running. Read their stories. Give back. Together, we can make sure the people of Mexico Beach and their experiences are never forgotten.
By Shawna Wood, Driftwood Inn
Mom (Peggy Wood) decided she wanted to get the kids out of Atlanta and raise us in a small town, so we came down to Mexico Beach in 1970, and my parents bought a beach house on 34th Street. A year later, we moved here, and she wanted to find something to do where she could be home with all three kids, so they bought the Driftwood. It had seven units, and as they could, my parents built on, one more unit at a time. Over the years, as my dad made money in advertising in Georgia, Mom was taking that money and putting it into the hotel. In 1994, it burned down and was rebuilt, but the front wall and inside six feet have remained the same.
Eighty percent of our customers were repeat customers. We weren’t a Ritz-Carlton by any means. Our rooms had antiques, they had all-tile floors, and we were the only place that allowed pets, but the repeats kept us alive. We had potlucks, movie nights, craft parties, and painting classes. We built a chapel and had hundreds of weddings here. Vow renewals and memorials. It was such a special place.
Our favorite things about this community are the special things that we get to do. We have the special events committee that helps put on the gumbo festival, the wine festival, Christmas tree lightings, etc. We did a campaign once where you got to sponsor a palm tree with a plaque, and those trees have lined the beach for a long time.
We evacuated for Hurricane Michael at the last minute. We had guests that didn’t want to leave, so we couldn’t go until they were all gone. We went up to Dothan and rode it out with the family. There was a lady at the Summer House that had a camera so we could see what was happening, and when you saw the Driftwood from the front, everything looked relatively OK. We were so excited. But when we got back, man, it was such a hard blow.
We knew the houses were gone and the cottages were gone, but we really felt OK knowing that the main building was there. But now they’re telling us they have to tear it down. We came back from Dothan full-time about a week after the storm, and we moved back into our house about a month ago. The bottom floor will be completely gutted, but we’ll renovate it so Mom can stay in it since she lived in the top of the Driftwood.
Everything was gone. It was so heartbreaking. Pictures didn’t show what it was until we got here. I cried for two weeks. All these people wanted interviews, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to talk about it.
We’ve already got an architect, a contractor, and a structural engineer talking about plans and how we’re going to rebuild, but at this point, we’re waiting for the city to let us know what we can do. We’re moving forward as much as we can right now and we want to be back in business as soon as possible. There was a meeting with local business owners, and everyone was asked to raise their hand if they weren’t going to rebuild, and not a single hand went up. So the spirit is still here.
I want my kids to experience the Florida I did. I was the one that fought my mom the most when we moved here because I couldn’t believe that she would take me away from Atlanta to a small town with only a few kids. Now I fight her the most for not wanting to leave. I know everything will be shiny and new, and I think that’s OK as long as they still keep the charm of Mexico Beach. We have a lot of property, and there could be a lot of money if we sold out, but we don’t want to and we don’t want to see big condos and big money come in. My parents got this property for less than everyone else bid for it because they promised they would never put a big condo on it. And they never will.
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