ORLANDO, Fla. -- One year after Category 5 Hurricane Michael barreled over the Florida Panhandle and into Georgia, Mexico Beach is urgently working to bring in more visitors, thousands of Panama City families are still "couch surfing," a prison with critically needed jobs remains shuttered in Marianna and tarps still cover hundreds of homes in south Georgia.
The year of recovery has meant victories finally over mountains of debris, exhausted budgets of cities and counties, communities unified as never before and realizations that many things will never rebound.
"I didn't have a clue of where we would be a year after ... ," said Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey of the natural apocalypse that struck his Panhandle city Oct. 10 last year. "We still have a high spirit."
From landfall at the beachside getaway, the storm kept its hurricane strength until central Georgia and dumped heavy rain as far along its path as New Jersey. Michael was blamed for 16 deaths and nearly $25 billion in damage in the U.S., according to the National Hurricane Center.
In Mexico Beach, where homes and businesses south of U.S. Highway 98 were largely bulldozed by 14 feet of wave-topped storm surge, most tree and building debris has been removed.
"Now we need to get back in business," Cathey said of a push to reopen rental properties, restaurants and mom-and-pop stores. "We can't sit here with our hands out for charity."
Cathey said the city's progress includes extensive restoration of utilities, a rewriting of rules for construction and a surge of applications in the past 90 days for homes and business building permits: 44.
"Our No. 1 need is to get our rental inventory open," Cathey said. "We can't sustain our recovery without visitors."
Another economic driver still largely out of action is St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, which juts into the Gulf of Mexico about a dozen miles south of Mexico Beach.
With a previous 300,000 visitors annually, the park had generated an estimated $22 million in local economic impact. Now, only a portion of park beach is open for day visits.