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Reporter's Notebook: Mexico Beach one year after Hurricane Michael

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Hurricane Michael destroyed most of the homes along the water in Mexico Beach. (WPEC)

One of the most striking images I saw in Mexico Beach was the old Fish House restaurant, which sits just a few feet from the ocean.

The building is missing the wall that faces the water, allowing you to look directly inside the old dining area. While some of the furniture is toppled over and scattered about -- there are still some table settings, cutlery, and bottles of olive oil still sitting out. You'll find old beer bottles and the Fish House's "OPEN" sign among the debris still spilling out onto the street.

I remember thinking, "it's like no one has been here in an entire year to clean this place up."

I made the 7.5 hour drive to Mexico Beach last week with photojournalist Wally Lurz to report on the community's recovery one year after Michael, a devastating Category 5 storm that made landfall in the small Panhandle beach town and destroyed about 70 percent of its buildings and infrastructure.

The Fish House restaurant was just one of many clues that recovery is going extremely slow.

We were immediately struck by the number of empty lots, piles of debris and seemingly abandoned buildings we found.

City officials estimate they lost around half of their year-round population in the year after Hurricane Michael. Many people saw the scale of the destruction and decided it would be easier to start over somewhere else. For those who stuck around, it's been a long year. Dozens of homeowners have parked RVs in their driveways as they fight for insurance money and search for contractors to work to repair their homes.

Why is recovery so slow?

The problems appear to be cyclical: a town that small facing so much clean up doesn't have money for debris removal and rebuilding up front.

In order to have that kind of money, you need a bigger tax base.

For a tax base, you need an economy. For an economy, you need businesses.

For businesses, you need workers.

For workers, you need housing.

For housing, you need money...

To rebuild Mexico Beach, it's hard to know where to start. One year after Michael, they still don't have a grocery store, gas station or fire station.

And they certainly don't have the money to take care of all these projects at once.

Instead, the city is at the mercy of the federal government and FEMA's process for reimbursement.

We take an in-depth look at that process Thursday night on CBS12 News at 11 and ask if FEMA should adjust its policies when a town so small gets hit by a hurricane so strong.

I left Mexico Beach with the impression that people there feel forgotten. They look at the many donation drives and campaigns to help other hurricane victims in other parts of the world, and wonder why they haven't received more help in Mexico Beach and Bay County.

"Keep us in your prayers and your mind," Mexico Beach City Councilor Bobby Pollock said. "We need help. But if we don't have help, we'll take care of it. One way or another."

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