Driving north to Mexico Beach, Florida, you leave the Eastern time zone and enter the Central. For years, people would celebrate their second New Year’s here, as the clock struck midnight CST. It was a collection of well-worn beach cottages and motels on Gulf’s Forgotten Coast.
Mexico Beach is also the home of Killer Seafood, a dive of a restaurant with a blue awning, serving up fabulous grilled tuna tacos and bread bowls of shrimp and scallops in a homemade simmering sauce. My wife Margaret and I would drive about 45 minutes for lunch a couple times during our stay in Florida. We’d go to the ATM next door to get cash, since they didn’t take plastic. Killer deserved its listing in Coastal Living as one of the “Best Seafood Dives in America.”
Killer Seafood before and after Hurricane Michael. Image credit: Alan Brown, gofundme.com
In October 2018, Hurricane Michael made landfall at Mexico Beach as a Category 5 storm. We visited over three months later. Killer Seafood was gone. Toucans, a restaurant/tiki bar on the beach, was gone. Every landmark I knew was gone, replaced by piles of rubble. I felt bad being a disaster tourist, gawking at where a community once stood, unable to get my bearings. But it seared into my mind exactly how much had been taken away.
Image credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images.
Last year, we spent January and February in a place that had as many FEMA people and contractors as snowbirds. There were piles of trashed appliances and insulation and siding at frequent intervals on roadsides. There were swathes of pine trees snapped ten feet above the ground, extending 30 miles inland. On Cape San Blas, where we stay, blue tarps covered most roofs. Some property owners had jumped into their restoration projects. Some had to bulldoze their structures and start afresh. Others, knowing that insurance would cover lost revenue for the next season, were not in a hurry to do anything.
There was another force of nature named Michael in Mexico Beach. This one is Michael Scoggins, who along with his partner Kevin Crouse, owns Killer Seafood. What we didn’t see last year, amid the rubble, were the first sprouts of rebirth in Mexico Beach. Just a week after Michael the Hurricane hit, Killer Seafood’s next incarnation was as a tented kitchen called Camp Happy Tummies, feeding first responders, those involved in the clean-up and residents who had no other place to go.
When we came back this year, there are obvious signs of regeneration throughout the area. The snapped pines had been cut down. In some places, the forest has become savannah. In others, a new generation of pines are beginning. The roads are fixed up. The rubble is gone. The roof repairs continue, although the army of contractors is much reduced.
We made the drive to Mexico Beach, hoping to see progress but not expecting any. Amid the now-vacant lots, we saw a blue trailer… the next phase for Killer Seafood. No bar. No dollar bills taped to the walls. No SEC basketball on TV. But the familiar blue color in a temporary trailer with a few picnic tables in front. With the old sailor statue that stood watch on the famous dive has been recovered and returned. With plans to rebuild. And with jars of simmering sauce being sold again all along the coast.
This is a short story of resilience. It’s not as simple as picking yourself up and dusting yourself off after taking a hit. The hits just keep coming and the path to daylight is full of twists and turns. Whether it’s fighting with your insurance company. Or realizing that it will be years before your town is viable again. Or running out of cash. Or getting over the depression of losing everything of personal value to restart your business.
Those who demonstrate resilience will say it’s the only alternative they had. They are wrong. They had the option of staying curled up on a ball. Of waiting for something good to happen, instead of making something good happen. For Killer Seafood, the funky charm that was within its four walls was wiped away. Or as Kevin Crouse said, “We had an interruption, and it’s taken a journey to get back where we are today.”
Not everybody looks at a Category 5 hurricane as “an interruption.” Not everybody gets back in the game, knowing it may not be what they had before, but it’s good enough for now. And not everybody makes a simmering sauce as good as Michael, Kevin and their team do. Kevin and Michael don’t know me from Adam. But I think their story is worth sharing. And so is their simmering sauce. Here’s a link to the Killer Seafood website, with information on where you can get this amazing stuff.
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