Mexico Beach lights Christmas tree amid wreckage of Hurricane Michael

The residents of the devastated town on Florida's Panhandle want to show they are standing strong as a community.

Christmas lights illuminate a home on U.S. 98 in Mexico Beach, most of which remains in a suspended state of destruction two months after Hurricane Michael made landfall on Oct. 10. [Douglas R. Clifford | Florida Beach Insider photo]
Christmas lights illuminate a home on U.S. 98 in Mexico Beach, most of which remains in a suspended state of destruction two months after Hurricane Michael made landfall on Oct. 10. [Douglas R. Clifford | Florida Beach Insider photo]

MEXICO BEACH — The Christmas tree was standing. A good start.

Tall and artificial, sparsely decorated with ornaments, it hovered above wire nutcrackers and snowflakes shining dimly at twilight.

The tree was not where it was supposed to be, but few things are in a town where Hurricane Michael left three-quarters of the buildings leveled or broken beyond repair.

Mexico Beach’s holiday display used to be on the waterfront, in Sunset Park, but this year it’s planted on a patchy lawn next to the split brick shell of a realty office.

The annual lighting used to include a parade of decorated golf carts. It used to draw families and friends who shared this three-mile escape on the Forgotten Coast, where retirees held battle lines in the sand against high-rise condominiums and chain restaurants.

They had little defense for a hurricane.

Mayor Al Cathey did not know if the golf carts or families would come back, but he said the lighting would go on, not as normal but as close to it as possible.

"Having it in itself is just a sign of: We’re here. We’re not leaving,” Cathey said. “This is our home, and this is our Christmas tree.”

Mexico Beach lights its Christmas tree on Dec. 9, 2018, on the lawn in front of Mango Marley's Restaurant and the Parker Realty building. [Douglas R. Clifford | Florida Beach Insider photo]

But as the celebration drew near, on a cold and dreary Sunday, one day before the two-month mark since the storm sawed through the coast, the power kept cutting out. Forty-five minutes to go and the parking lot was mostly empty.

Would the lights turn on when Cathey flipped the switch?

Would anyone be there to worry if they didn’t?

“If there’s 10 or 100,” the mayor had said, “it doesn’t matter.”

“We can’t not do this.”

• • •

The temperature sagged, feeling like 49 degrees, and Laurie June bobbed across the parking lot passing out hand warmers to the few early arrivers.

She volunteers at a donation center next to the tree, stocking two shipping containers with necessities like sweaters and shampoo. Her husband works for Cathey at the town hardware store.

The Junes used to drive north to Alabama each year to cut down a fresh cedar tree. They used to lay out a Christmas village with pieces June inherited from her mother, but those boxes were stored downstairs, and downstairs didn’t exist after the storm.

“That’s just memories that will always hurt,” June said. “Instead of being good.”

This year, she picked out a small tree at a dollar store and placed it on top of the dog cage in the middle of their 24-foot camper, decorating with soft red cardinals from her mother’s old collection, which they managed to salvage from the rubble. She got presents for kids around town and looked for ways to help, finding a distraction in the work.

June distributed the hand warmers slowly at first, to residents drifting in from Mexico Beach and Beacon Hill and St. Joe Beach, other places hollowed by the storm.

She began the night with 120. The crowd started to swell twenty minutes before the ceremony. People parked across the street. They streamed across the lawn.

June ran out of hand warmers.

Olivia Vasquez, 5, left, and her sister, Izabella Vazquez, 10, visits with "Santa," Jack Mullen, at Mexico Beach's annual Christmas tree lighting. [Douglas R. Clifford | Florida Beach Insider photo]

Bundled in sweaters and hats, Danette and Wayne Davis shuffled close to the tree with their 13-year-old grandson, Dylan.

They had arranged their own decorations the day before, positioning nutcrackers in the windows of their home in St. Joe Beach, where they lived upstairs from a ruined ground level. They managed weeks without gas after the Oct. 10 storm, boiling water for showers.

“You keep waiting to wake up,” Danette Davis said.

Holiday songs hummed in the speakers as organizers waited for folks to settle in.

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas...”

People held tea lights in tasting glasses for a wine festival that never happened after Hurricane Michael. The staff of Mango Marley’s restaurant served hot chocolate and chili through the window of a food truck. General manager Jessica Schwark cradled her 4-month-old daughter, Alivia, and danced. Most of Schwark’s family lives in Illinois, she said, but this — her baby’s first Christmas — felt more real than any she’d spent in Florida.

“Let your heart be light...”

The road into Mexico Beach was speckled with strands of lights, red and blue and yellow marking the rare homes that remain upright and occupied. A man whose house burned the night of the storm, setting his neighbor’s ablaze, too, wrote “Ho Ho Ho!” in chalk on an exposed cinder block wall.

At the lighting ceremony, dogs in sweaters circled the feet of people in elf hats.

“From now on your troubles will be out of sight...”

Sara Walker knelt beside her 2-year-old daughter, Emery, and 5-year-old son, Silas. Before pulling up to the tree, they noticed something strange: an open restaurant.

“Mom, look,” Silas had said. “There’s pizza.”

That was the point, Walker said, to show the kids life could come back.

“Help them know it’s okay,” she said. “It’s still Christmas.”

Residents of Mexico Beach visit during the annual Christmas tree lighting festival hosted on the lawn in front of Mango Marley's restaurant and the Parker Realty building on U.S. 98 in Mexico Beach. [Douglas R. Clifford | Florida Beach Insider photo]

• • •

Santa would arrive soon, waving from the passenger’s seat of a fire truck escorted by five festive golf carts, which would show up after all. A little girl would ask him for a Barbie. Many more children would stroll away with candy canes and pictures of themselves, sitting next to Santa on a dark wood bench that used to be at the Driftwood Inn.

The mayor first stepped forward and asked for silence, reading the names of four men and women who died in Hurricane Michael.

Donald Vonderhaar.

Agnes Vicari.

Sandra Lucas-Detrick.

Gary Nakkula.

The crowd hushed under flood lights shining from the road, and people bowed their heads.

Cathey talked about the history of the town and the founders from whom he was descended. He spoke with a gravelly twang of all the things that used to be — his grandmother’s sundries store, where he learned to count back money to customers and cut a chicken, and where he met his wife, passing her change for the laundromat next door.

He told everyone they were standing where Mexico Beach was founded, the business center, as good a place as any to mark the start of whatever comes next.

He asked people to step forward, until they could all hold hands. They formed a crescent under the tree.

Cathey waited. He prepared to flip the switch.

“Are we good?” he asked.

Sampson is a general assignment reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, and has written about everything from a police horse that paints to how county officials spend your tax dollars. He is from Rhode Island and will talk to you about it.