Light Rain
H 84° L 61°
  • cloudy-day
    Current Conditions
    Light Rain. H 84° L 61°
  • rain-day
    Light Rain. H 84° L 61°
  • rain-day
    Rain. H 66° L 62°

The latest top stories

00:00 | 00:00


The latest traffic report

00:00 | 00:00


The latest forecast

00:00 | 00:00

Hurricane Michael left a beloved motel in ruins

Hurricane Michael left a beloved motel in ruins

Hurricane Michael left a beloved motel in ruins
Photo Credit: Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP
Tom Wood, left, and Peggy Wood arrive at the site of their Driftwood Inn, background, where they were meeting an engineer, architect and builder on Jan. 11, 2019 in Mexico Beach, Fla. The Inn was destroyed by Hurricane Michael and the Woods wanted to discuss plans to reconstruct the beachfront hotel. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

Hurricane Michael left a beloved motel in ruins

The Woods had a rule for surviving hurricanes.

A Category 1 or 2 was no reason to panic. They could ride it out in a room at the Driftwood Inn, waves seething outside their back windows.

If forecasters called for anything stronger, it was time to go.

Peggy and Tom Wood had spent most of their lives in Mexico Beach and no storm ever seriously damaged the Inn. They bought it in 1975 when it was just eight units, barn red and seafoam green with neon lights that sparked in the rain. They raised three children there and remodeled, adding rooms when they could until they had 24 across two stories and a couple of outbuildings, looking over the Gulf of Mexico.

The Driftwood featured crisp white walls, a red roof and gables — a gingerbread-beach-Victorian that became a landmark in a small town that fancied itself the defender of a bygone American era.

The snowbirds arrived in October, staying months and sharing Christmases like family. Sometimes hurricanes popped up around the same season, unwelcome guests taking wobbly aim at the Panhandle.

The Woods only had to evacuate the Inn five or six times. When they first heard of Hurricane Michael, they figured they'd retreat to Room 3 again, huddling with Woodie, the Driftwood's loping Great Dane, and JoJo, a macaw who squawked "Hello" and let the woman in charge of reservations cradle him like a baby.

Forecasters described the storm as a Category 1 two days before landfall, perhaps on its way to becoming a 2. They soon changed their tone, warning of sudden intensification, a possible major Category 3 or even 4 hurricane slicing toward Mexico Beach.

Peggy, 78, and her daughter Shawna, 54, scrambled to persuade the last guests to leave. They gathered the computers and loaded Woodie into the car while JoJo, the bird, stayed at the Driftwood.

They drove north to Alabama, leaving 43 years behind.

Peggy and Tom were at first a novelty in Mexico Beach, two "art-eests" from Atlanta.

They had met at Ringling College, an art school in Sarasota. He remembers she was pretty, and available. She remembers he had a car and could drive to the beach.

The Inn began as a lark, a $138,000 investment their friends thought was a robbery, but they hoped to make it a home. They wanted to raise their children in a small town, citing vague concerns over drugs and crime in the city.

They had no customers or experience running a motel. Tom's earnings from his ad agency about six hours north carried them through the first year.

The kids — Bart, Shawna and Brandy — hated driving 45 minutes to the nearest mall or movie theater. They cleaned rooms and avoided telling friends where they lived. Hot dog roasts on the beach were fun, though, and they enjoyed meeting some of the new vacationers.

Peggy and Tom reshaped the motel, sometimes on a whim. The previous owner had bulldozed the sea oats, convinced visitors liked plain sand, but the Woods trucked in palm trees and strange plants that gardeners told them would never survive near saltwater. They plopped gargoyle and mermaid sculptures throughout the garden and built a mossy gazebo where customers reclined on swings and chatted in the breeze.

"It was always a love affair," Tom said.

The Woods and the Inn slowly emerged as a staple in Mexico Beach, no longer just an oddity.

They started an annual art and wine festival. They planted palm trees along U.S. 98 and helped organize the Fourth of July fireworks. Peggy convinced the trash collectors to help her haul in the town's first Christmas tree. They bought other properties and hosted movie nights and potlucks.

By high school, Shawna and her siblings were bringing friends over to help with chores. "Every kid on Mexico Beach helped us paint the Driftwood, weed the Driftwood, clean rooms at the Driftwood," she said.

After their children moved out, the Woods converted their bedrooms into rental units.

The average guest booked for three months. The Woods charged $1,300 per month for a room, or anywhere from $125 to $220 a night depending on the space and season. People joked that the only way to secure a spot during the snowbird months was for someone to die.

Visitors tucked dog treats in their pockets for Woodie, who laid her head on the counter to be pet. JoJo pecked jewelry from unsuspecting women in the entryway.

Peggy lived in a sunny apartment on the second floor, where she stacked gardening books on white shelves and drifted to a deck over the beach at night. She hung Tom's paintings. He split time between Mexico Beach and Atlanta.

Eventually, their children returned, buying beach houses of their own.

When Hurricane Michael crashed ashore Oct. 10, lacerating the power grid and cell phone service and leaving four people dead in Mexico Beach, Peggy and Shawna were hunkered down 100 miles away just over the border of Alabama.

They searched for videos of the town and found one showing Toucan's, a popular restaurant, exploding like shrapnel in the wind.

The Woods struggled to find any clear images of the Driftwood. One shot from a helicopter seemed to show the back of their building blown out by wind or water or both.

What they found days later was much worse.

A piano blocked the front door amid a slew of other debris. They climbed over piles of rubble trying to assess what they'd lost.

The dunes were gone. The plants were gone. The cottages and outbuildings were gone. They couldn't find any pieces of the chapel Tom had built, where couples used to renew their vows. The old record player inside and spools with Thomas Edison's voice were gone. Tom's sculptures were gone.

The doorways of the rooms in the front of the main building were plugged with mattresses and box springs, left by rushing water that made a line where it crested at the doorknobs on the second floor. The ground was littered with a bizarre mishmash — a portrait of a grandson, VHS tapes, a custom Driftwood calendar from 2002, a white phone ripped from its cord embedded in the sand.

It was as if almost everything the Woods owned had collapsed in an avalanche of time.

"Can you imagine that you worked for 50 years building something and in three or four hours the whole thing just went away?" Peggy said later. "Just how did this all happen to me so fast?"

Shawna and Amy Hay, the reservationist at the Inn, began to dig. Amy refused to leave until she knew for sure what happened to JoJo the macaw.

Shawna wished she had taken the bird to her house before the storm, but the Woods didn't know it would be so bad. Fitting JoJo in a car was difficult, and he didn't always get along with Woodie.

Amy was shoveling aside scraps in what used to be the gift shop with another helper when they saw the blue and gold feathers.

They pulled JoJo's body from the rubble and buried him beneath a cross in Shawna's yard.

Needing quiet and her own space, Peggy bought an 18-foot Coleman camper and parked it in her daughter's driveway, just beyond the shadow of the Driftwood.

Shawna's house was damaged, but standing, and the family planned to convert the first floor into an apartment.

Until then, Peggy kept a bottle of rum by the small sink because visitors often wanted a drink.

Tom, 78, stayed in Atlanta, better for his lungs and art, but Peggy wanted to stick to Mexico Beach. She pulled down a Murphy bed to sleep and shuffled to the bathroom past Woodie, who curled into a blanket on the narrow floor.

The Great Dane was frazzled and losing weight. Her food sat in a container outside where, one night, Peggy saw a black bear polishing it off.

Woodie resented her leash, but Peggy was worried because the dog liked to run across the street to the Driftwood.

"She kept trying to go home," Peggy said.

After a month, Woodie stopped.

"She's given up on going over there."

Peggy, though, had not.

There were no restaurants in Mexico Beach. No gas stations. No grocery store. Bumpy gravel patched the highway where the road had washed away. All around the city, residents were confronting the same crisis, asking themselves whether staying was worth it. They became accustomed to the rumbles and beeps of heavy machinery and the mildewy smell of a town in decay.

"But should you give up?" Peggy wondered.

She had started running the Inn when she was a stay-at-home mom driving carpools, admittedly a little worried her ad boss husband could leave her for a model one day. Four decades later, Peggy and Tom were still together, and the Driftwood had become their greatest project.

"If a person can't dream, then they don't have hope," Peggy said. "You have to have dreams."

So Shawna and Amy stayed on the payroll, covered by an insurance policy. They canceled outstanding deposits and plucked paperwork from the rubble. They created careful inventories of what they could remember from inside the Inn. Shawna looked out across the empty white sand and wondered what was in the Gulf water. Pieces of tin or shards of homes — what had the flood taken? And would it ever wash back ashore?

Day after day, she and Amy scanned the debris for salvage — part of a stone fountain, the sign for the old gift shop. They stacked what they found at the back of Shawna's driveway.

Maybe, they thought, those pieces would start a new Driftwood.


Information from: Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.), http://www.tampabay.com.

Read More

The Latest News Headlines

  • A rescue is underway at SeaWorld San Diego after a skyride malfunctioned Monday night, initially stranding nine adults and seven children – including an infant. >> See a photo from the scene here >> Read more trending news  As of 10:30 p.m. PST, crews had rescued 14 people from the Bayside Skyride, which stalled when heavy winds 'tripped a circuit breaker' more than three hours earlier, KSWB reported. Two people were still trapped on the ride's gondolas, the San Diego Fire Department said. >> See the tweet here KSWB said some of the gondolas were over Mission Bay when the ride stopped working. Those trapped were 'lowered by harnesses & rescued by [San Diego Lifeguards] boats,' the Fire Department tweeted. Read more here.
  • Four days after the announcement of a series of executive actions to fund his signature border wall, President Donald Trump’s administration still needs to fill in the details on his plans to shift over $6.6 billion from the Pentagon and Treasury Department into funding border security, as members of Congress continue to wonder if the move will dig into their local military base construction projects. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers and their staffs were awaiting guidance on where the Pentagon would look for money in the $3.6 billion sought by the President in his emergency declaration from military construction projects, which was already the subject of new lawsuits. “Congress has not enacted any emergency legislation even remotely related to border wall construction, and thus the President’s reallocation of funds is unlawful,” read a suit filed against the President and Pentagon by several environmental groups. In a letter to the Acting Secretary of Defense, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) asked for a breakdown of which projects would be put on hold – as under the ‘national emergency’ law used by the President, the Pentagon would make those decisions – not the Congress. Congress approved $10.3 billion for military construction in Fiscal Year 2019 – the $3.6 billion sought by the President would be more than one-third of that amount – which has drawn expressions of concern from lawmakers. As Kaine noted in his letter, the move to shift money from military construction comes at a time when the Pentagon already was having to deal with hurricane damage at two major domestic bases – Camp Lejeune for the Marines in North Carolina, and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. Tyndall was seriously damaged by Hurricane Michael in 2018 – and despite support for rebuilding the base, Congress has not yet acted on extra money for the Pentagon – or on broader hurricane relief for those hit in Florida and Georgia. During the partial government shutdown, Democrats in the House approved a bill which had $12.1 billion in disaster aid, both for hurricanes and wildfires – but that bill does not seem to be on the agenda in the U.S. Senate at this point. @DrNealDunnFL2 Dr Dunn, we are hearing here in the Panhandle that Trump is going after Tyndall rebuilding money for his wall. Please don’t let this happen! No Tyndall would be catastrophic to our area. Please help! — Billy Shears (@BillyShears9) February 14, 2019 The Commandant of the Marine Corps said over the weekend that he needs $3.5 billion just for repairs at Camp LeJeune from damage caused by Hurricane Florence in September of 2018 – which is equal to the figure of how much in military construction the President wants to shift into a border wall. Earlier this month, Air Force officials said they planned to spend $3 billion to rebuild Tyndall, which was flattened by Hurricane Michael in October of last year. House Democrats say they plan to hold a hearing as soon as next week to get a better idea on what military construction projects the Pentagon wants to scrap – in order to move money to the wall. Also still unclear is the legal underpinnings for two other moves announced last week by the White House, where the President would move money from a Treasury Department drug forfeiture fund, as well as money from a Pentagon anti-drug account – into a border wall.
  • JEA employees should expect to see some soggy carpets and heavy-duty drying equipment when they get to work Tuesday. An internal communication sent to employees says nine floors in the 19-story tower have experienced areas of flooding, in connection to several different issues. JEA says an under-counter water heater on the 8th floor failed on Sunday, flooding that break room and causing problems all the way down to the second floor. The water has soaked ceiling tiles, cabinets, and boxes in copy rooms and surrounding spaces. On Monday, JEA says a water supply line to the ice machine on the 14th floor failed, flooding that break room and surrounding areas. JEA says that leak caused damage to the 12th floor as well, although it appears the 13th floor was spared. A third issue happened at the Customer Center lobby, where there was a water leak from the HVAC system that damaged a ceiling tile. It was removed and will be replace when they are done handling the Tower, according to JEA. JEA Managing Director and CEO Aaron Zahn tweeted that JEA service will continue. JEA says no employees are displaced by this flooding, because it is largely around break rooms. Employees are cautioned to expect soggy carpets, fans drying some areas, and equipment to extract water in others. They will try to minimize the impact of the equipment, but say there will be extra noise. This comes as JEA considers bids for a new headquarters building. When this process started, the driving factors for seeking a new location were that the current building was too large and was in need of substantial repairs. The Board of Directors has three bids under consideration, Lot J by TIAA Bank Field, Kings Avenue Station on the Southbank, and West Adams Street by the County Courthouse. The Board will make a selection in April, but constructing and handing over the facility is expected to take more than two years to do. WOKV has asked JEA for more information about the state of the Tower and extent of repairs needed. We will update you as that information comes in.
  • The University of North Florida is making some changes after communication problems last week during a threat of a potential shooter on campus. Investigators determined the threat was bogus and had been called in by a woman with mental health issues, but UNF spokesperson Sharon Ashton says they've decided to make several policy changes in case there's an actual threat in the future.  'We will be retraining everyone in the UPD, University Police Department, to make sure they understand the priority of how to best communicate a message,' Ashton says.  She says the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office contacted the UPD on Feb. 11 at 5:50 p.m. to tell them someone had called saying they saw a person with a gun at the arena parking garage. About 20 minutes later, the 911 operator in the campus communications center was told to send out an alert telling the campus to shelter in place.  'Unfortunately the UNF 911 operator chose to send out that message via email instead of text message or phone call, which are the most immediate ways to get the word out,' Ashton says.  She says the operator also had the option to use the public address system, both inside buildings and externally in parking lots, but she decided against that as well.  Ashton says those decisions caused a domino effect that made the situation worse. She says the vendor the school uses to send out emails tried to send out 40,000 alerts, but about 1,500 of those messages were never delivered.  After all the problems, it was decided a debriefing should be held with the school's president, campus police and the crisis management team. Ashton says now they are putting safeguards in place.  Those safeguards include posting detailed instructions in the communications center to ensure everyone knows the best way to get a message out quickly in case of emergency. They are also looking at increasing the number of employees in the center, because Ashton says the 911 calls start coming in rapidly in a situation like the one last week.  Ashton says when the crisis management team holds their monthly meeting in March, they will go through last week's scare minute by minute to talk about what occurred and what should have occurred.  She also says they will work with the email vendor to make sure there's a way to send all 40,000 emails without getting some of them hung up.  'In hindsight there are some things with communication that could have been done better, and we will work on that because safety is the number one priority,' Ashton says.
  • With the aim of streamlining the overall system and aiding investigations by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, the City Council is now considering a plan to spend close to $3.5 million upgrading and replacing security cameras and related systems at City buildings. WOKV previously reported that $3 million was set aside for this as part of the annual budget process. Several departments had sought upgraded equipment, and the Administration decided to form a working group to look at the need from a more broad perspective, rather than continuing to have each department handle their own procurement. Details obtained by WOKV now show that working group has recommended 1,666 new cameras from three main vendors- Lenel, Geutebruck, and Optiview. That includes new cameras mainly at public libraries, the County Courthouse, and Tax Collector branches, as well as a few other locations and some recording and storage upgrades. The overall ask totals $3,456,857, though. The $456,857 that’s over the $3 million already set aside will come from Public Parking’s budget and will focus specifically on new cameras for the Ed Ball garage and Water Street garage, as well as a new video recording server for all Public Parking locations. IN DEPTH: Jacksonville’s $1.2 billion budget Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry’s Chief of Staff Brian Hughes, who led up the working group on this matter, says this recommendation reduces the number of vendors being used and involves vendors that IT employees are already familiar with. He says looking at this from a more broad perspective also let them realize some cost savings, as part of negotiating a larger deal. But the biggest impact in these upgrades could instead be on the benefit it may provide to JSO. “Making sure that, if we make these investments in technology for video surveillance, that they were systems that would integrate with JSO’s programming,” Hughes says. Currently, if JSO sees City surveillance cameras that may have captured something important to an investigation, they have to work through a process of requesting that footage and then physically obtaining it, according to Hughes. He says that’s because the current camera system uses recording and storage devices that are not network- or cloud-based. In recent months, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has been setting up a “Real-Time Crime Center”, which is built around software called CommandCentral Aware, which grabs many different information feeds and streamlines them to then relay to first responders and investigators. By replacing the current cameras and recording systems with ones that are compatible with wireless networking, the new infrastructure can feed in to the CommandCentral Aware system directly, meaning video that used to take hours or more to obtain can now be accessed very quickly. IN DEPTH: What is a “Real Time Crime Center” “If, let’s say, something happened on a street, any street. If they [JSO] know a government building is there and it’s a cloud-based system that they’ve logged in to their capabilities, they can- in a much faster time- access the feed and say ‘Oh, that camera faces out on to the street that we want to see if a car drove by’, or see who was walking on the street, or driving by at the moment when an incident happened,” Hughes says. The RTCC system is able to search those video feeds and synch up various streams, in an effort to create a comprehensive look at a scene and find potential evidence and leads.  These camera replacements represent the needs that were expressed to the Administration in the lead up to the last budget cycle, but not all of the cameras and infrastructure in the City. WOKV asked if the Administration’s intent is to continue replacing this tech at their end of life, or if they will look at proactively upgrading existing tech in order to further support the RTCC. “Those decisions are obviously budget impact decisions, and we try to weigh all the priorities that are coming forth in the budget process, as we prepare for Council’s consideration. But, obviously, public safety is a number one priority for the Mayor, so wherever we can find the possibility of contributing to public safety, we will. But we have to balance that, as always, with all of the other budget priorities,” Hughes says. He says this process will help guide them in the event other City departments request security camera and system upgrades in the next budget. They are looking at several different vendors because Hughes says there are unique needs that each one can address in various departments, but the core focus is that all of the upgrades will be capable of wireless- and cloud based-networking. City Council must still approve this plan in the coming weeks, although the money that’s being used has already been earmarked for these purposes. If approved, Hughes says there will be some steps that take place in procurement, but they will look to deploy the new cameras and systems as soon as possible. The RTCC is also fed by programs like ShotSpotter, which detects the sound of gunshots and alerts police, even if there is no 911 cal that’s placed. It further integrates the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, which compares ballistic evidence against other cases. JSO recently doubled the equipment they have to process evidence through NIBIN. While the intelligence-based technology and systems continue to expand in Jacksonville, City leaders have also tried other measures to reach in to neighborhoods to address violence, through a program awarding grants to small community organizations. JSO has also been rolling out hundreds of body cameras. Despite that, we saw a spike of violence in Jacksonville this past weekend, with at least seven shootings leaving four people dead and five others hurt. WOKV will continue to press City leadership for insight on what kind of returns these investments are getting.

The Latest News Videos