I WAS LONG OVERDUE for a real vacation. I needed a break from the constant and ever-rising pitch of anger and ugly rhetoric that has become distressingly common in the world of American politics, so we decided to seek respite at a beach on the Florida Panhandle.
The weather when we arrived was less than cooperative however, and we chose to fill a not-very-beach-friendly day with a drive to the town of Mexico Beach, where, on Oct. 10, 2018, a hurricane just shy of Category 5, came thundering ashore.
A friend with whom we were vacationing suggested the trip, saying it would be interesting, a chance to witness the effects of a type of weather we rarely, if ever, experience in New Hampshire.
The video images of the hurricane and its aftermath that filled the airwaves back in October replayed in our minds as we made our way along Route 98. We passed acre after acre of what were once dense woods, now strange, eerie-looking expanses of trees that have all cracked at nearly the identical spot in their trunks, still connected, but broken and bent to the ground.
The closer we got to Mexico Beach, the more profound the damage. I don’t know what I expected, but as my companions marveled at the destruction around us, I couldn’t help but be moved by the devastation we were witnessing. A lump grew in my throat and my chest tightened as we drove closer to where the storm had come ashore.
“Look at that,” and “Oh my God, look over there.” But the more I looked where they pointed, the more I wanted to look away. It felt invasive and personal, as if we were intruding at a funeral or a hospital bedside where we didn’t belong. There were roofs and windows and furniture still strewn along the sides of the road. Boats were topsy-turvy in the low brush of fallen trees. Concrete pads where homes used to stand and families used to gather were blown bare. Structures that had collapsed onto themselves lay in sad, deserted piles there … and there … and there.
The problem was that I couldn’t disconnect the people from the leftover rubble. I thought about families fleeing those homes that no longer stand without time to grab their favorite photos, the men and women whose dreams lay buried under flattened businesses. I thought about the fear, the heartbreak, the despair they must have felt, and must still feel when they drive along these roads.
We stopped at the only open establishment we could find, Mango Marley’s, smack on the main drag as you drive into town.
Right across from the ocean, Mango Marley’s used to be a great spot to eat, drink and enjoy the company.
Today, it’s a food truck and a dining tent, set up in the parking lot in front of the building that’s under repair, with a view mottled by piles of debris.
As we approached, Courtney Huff took our orders for burgers and drinks and told us how the entire town is in a lot better shape than it was after the storm. She talked about having to dodge whole houses that were blown into the streets.
She told us about her sister, who barely survived, but whose home did not. And she told us about her neighbors, nearly all of whom who were sticking around, committed to rebuilding, refusing to leave their lives in Mexico Beach behind.
It was hard to imagine, as I looked around me at the overwhelming destruction that surrounded us, eyeing the hundreds of buildings that were still to be repaired or rebuilt, that in Courtney’s eyes, this was so much better. I was touched by her resilience, and inspired by her optimistic demeanor, and even in the cool of the drizzling rain, we were warmed by her welcome.
Politicians talk a lot about the American spirit and they like the photo op of showing up and tip-toeing through the aftermath of a disaster, but they don’t have a clue.
Until you have had your home blown away as you grip tight to your children’s hands, until you have been chased by the flooding waters of the storm surge, you can never understand the courage and the fortitude that is required to come back, to stand, to rebuild.
It will take years for the good folks in Mexico Beach to rebuild their lives, to reclaim what is theirs.
People like Courtney Huff and her neighbors move forward every day with a strength that most of us can’t imagine.
“We’re glad you’re here,” said one of my friends, as Courtney passed our burgers through the window of her truck. “Well,” Courtney answered, with a tired smile, “we’re not the same, but we’re still here.”
The truth is, Mango Marley’s is still a pretty great place to hang out.