Editor’s Note: Following is the first of a four-part series on the devastation Hurricane Michael wrought on the Mexico Beach, Fla., community, which is frequented by many southwest Georgians.

MEXICO BEACH, Fla. — Summer’s end 2018 ... Labor Day has come and gone. The summer tourist tango ended for the season. It’s just the “locals’ and those of us “lifers” captivated by this place since youth.

We work like crazy all week, breathlessly anticipating the first look at the water at the end of Highway 386 on Friday. To feel the Gulf breeze on our face and smell the salty spray as the waves meet the beach ... that’s why we work to make the trip yet again. Yep, those of us who are lifers may make the trek every weekend, once a year or once a decade — sometimes life intercedes — the length of time between visits does not change that first look and the gratitude felt at seeing again.

Through the years, things at Mexico Beach have stayed relatively constant as time marched forward. This piece of the “Forgotten Coast” stayed tucked away largely unchanged by the outside world. Not that there hasn’t been change.

Gone for years now are Mexico Beach Grocery, with its slamming screen door; the Sandman Motel, with the beautiful views of sun, sand and water from its picture windows; the Islander RV Resort, where so many families enjoyed making beach memories with their loved ones; the Top of the Gulf Restaurant, where many a delicious meal was enjoyed, and the days of the family-friendly haunted house fundraiser for the Mexico Beach Fire Department. These places and events have long since become just memories.

Life at Mexico Beach always marched on, but the sameness of many landmarks there for decades remained. The familiar faces with welcoming, caring smiles greeted visitors as they returned time after time. The locals who obviously loved their community, and the parts they played in the making of family memories year after year became very important to the visitors they greeted.

The comforting appearance of the quaint Mexico Beach community was changed forever at 12:30 p.m. CDT on Oct. 10, 2018, as Hurricane Michael made landfall. This natural fury made landfall as what was deemed at the time a Category 4 hurricane but later actually defined as a Category 5 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. Michael brought high winds, heavy rain and tremendous and deadly storm surges that left in its wake massive destruction. This hurricane left monumental debris, destroyed and damaged buildings, downed power lines and destroyed forests to a degree almost incomprehensible to the human mind.

This Category 5 hurricane, with sustained winds of 160 mph, pounded the piece of paradise that is Mexico Beach relentlessly, destroying decades of local landmarks treasured by so many locals and visitors.

Hurricane Michael is the strongest storm in recorded history to have made direct landfall on the northeast Gulf Coast. That storm changed our piece of paradise incredibly. Gone now is the beach cottage where I watched my children grow into the fine young adults that they have become. My sweet Daddy, who taught me to love the coast, is watching from Heaven these days, and Smokey, the big, black cat who loved long, lazy days at the coast, is watching from across the Rainbow Bridge as the community we all love struggles to regain normalcy.

The destruction left by Michael physically hurts to see.

The community of Mexico Beach, the place that never changes, the place that time has allowed to remain the same for decades, is now changed forever. The devastation left as Hurricane Michael’s legacy is forever etched on the hearts of those who love this small community with a big heart. But those of us who love it know that Mexico Beach will become whole again, find a new normal that welcomes visitors, because this place and its people are stronger than the storm.

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