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Hurricane season begins in Mexico Beach, Fla.


Hurricane season starts today, and forecasters with NOAA say the Atlantic hurricane season for the seventh year running will be busier than usual. That's especially a concern for people who live in the southeast and along the Gulf Coast. But the threat of hurricanes, climate change and rising seas is not discouraging development along the coasts. NPR's Greg Allen reports that Mexico Beach, a Florida town almost totally destroyed by hurricane nearly four years ago, is coming back.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: It was in October of 2018 when Hurricane Michael made landfall near Mexico Beach with 160-mile-per-hour winds and a 17 1/2-foot storm surge. It was a Category 5 hurricane, one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the U.S. Tom Wood says when he arrived a few days later, he was astonished by what he didn't see.

TOM WOOD: Everything on the beach side, on that side and this side, was gone. And what wasn't gone was so damaged by water. On this place, we had water up to the doorknobs of the second floor.

ALLEN: Eighty-five percent of the buildings in Mexico Beach were destroyed in the storm, including Wood's beachside hotel, the Driftwood Inn. Three and a half years later, the mountains of debris are gone, and rebuilding is well underway. Next month, the new Driftwood Inn will be welcoming guests, one of the first major businesses to reopen there since the storm. Wood is proud of what he and his family have done rebuilding a Mexico Beach landmark.

WOOD: This is the gift shop. A lot of the paintings are my paintings.

ALLEN: OK. Is this one yours?

WOOD: Yeah.

ALLEN: Wood is 82 now. He's owned the Driftwood for nearly a half-century and has turned over operations to his daughter, Shawna. They say rebuilding in town was slow to get started but is really picking up.

WOOD: The individual houses is coming back tenfold.

SHAWNA: Our bank was the first thing to come back. Then shortly after that, the gas station. But it was probably two years in.

ALLEN: COVID didn't help. It made it hard to find workers, caused supply problems and pushed up building costs. Construction here was also put on hold until the town revised its building code.

The new Driftwood Inn sits 6 feet higher than the old one and is built to withstand a Category 4 hurricane. I asked Wood what would happen if there's another Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm.

WOOD: I don't know. We had to do things like put hurricane-proof windows in it, and we had to put pilings down. So will it hold up? I think it would hold up, but it will be a lot of damage.

ALLEN: Mexico Beach has adopted one of the toughest building codes in Florida. Al Cathey, the longtime mayor, says that was controversial. But to qualify for $100 million in federal grants, Cathey says Mexico Beach now requires new construction to be able to withstand major hurricane-force winds.

AL CATHEY: And we upped it to 140-mile-an-hour winds. We didn't go to the Miami-Dade code. That's, to my knowledge, the most stringent in the country. And we also made some differences in elevation. And you can see just riding through our town's taller. But it should be.

ALLEN: The hurricane and the high cost of rebuilding drove many older residents out of town. But realtor and longtime resident Kevin Crouse says there are lots of newcomers.

KEVIN CROUSE: You know, it used to be called the forgotten coast. I don't think it's so forgotten anymore.

ALLEN: There are two housing developments going up and a third one starting soon. Crouse says the risk of living on the coast in an area that was recently leveled by a hurricane hasn't hurt home values.

CROUSE: You know, you had some fire sales there in the beginning. That is no longer the case. Gulf-front locations are going for a million, beachside are a half a million. So we are right there at the top of the market, and it's still climbing.

ALLEN: Although the new code requires buildings to be more resilient, the town retained old restrictions that rule out high-rise condo buildings and other big developments. Mayor Cathey says there's been another change since the storm. People on Florida's panhandle used to think they were unlikely to experience a direct hit from a major hurricane. That's no longer the case.

CATHEY: When a storm gets in the Gulf, I perk up. I pay attention. I'm not a slow learner when it comes to storms anymore (laughter).

ALLEN: If people on Florida's panhandle needed a reminder about their vulnerability, they just got one. A week before the official start of hurricane season, meteorologists began tracking a tropical disturbance in the Gulf, one that came ashore not far from Mexico Beach.

Greg Allen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.