Hurricane Michael destroyed Florida’s Mexico Beach, but the storm battered city still has reasons to be thankful.
Some families will gather for a Thanksgiving dinner of smoked ham and turkey at Camp Happy Tummies, a pop-up kitchen that has become a community gathering post, a place to eat and to forget – at least for a while – the monstrous task of rebuilding the colorful beach town Michael left in ruins.
“I see people sitting down here, talking for 30 minutes, stop thinking about what’s beyond these walls. It brings out a lot of hope,” said Hal Summers, who before the storm was restaurant manager at Killer Seafood, a local favorite. Summers and Killer Seafood’s owner, Michael Scoggins, are the men behind Camp Happy Tummies. But the pop-up has also been fueled by tens of thousands of dollars donated by people all over the world.
Killer Seafood, like nearly every other building in Mexico Beach, was destroyed in the October storm, the strongest to make landfall since 1992. Scoggins and Summers stayed in town during the storm, which led to the deaths of at least 36 people across several Southern states, and they were among the first to see the extent of its damage.
“There was a building here, I promise,” Scoggins said recently as he walked on the lot where his restaurant used to sit along Highway 98. “The building had survived so many storms, I couldn’t tell you.”
As they and others work to rebuild, Scoggins and Summers decided to turn their grief at the loss of the city and the restaurant into something positive: a place of comfort for residents.
Camp Happy Tummies has become a place for locals to commune over hot meals and distance themselves from the daily, arduous task of rebuilding the city.
“It’s a safe place to let your feelings out. The warmth that we have within these four walls, it’s something I never expected to have,” Linda Albrecht, a Mexico Beach councilmember, said while having dinner inside the tent that houses the kitchen.
The ambiance at Camp Happy Tummies is a blend of smiles and chatter, succulent smells and the roar of generators. In the kitchen – among the utensils, fresh produce, pots and pans – is a weekly menu scribbled on parchment paper. Just outside the tent, debris from the storm remains scattered in the woods.
There is plenty in need of rebuilding in Mexico Beach, with at least 75% of homes destroyed and only one-third of the year-round population now living there. There are no functioning grocery stores or restaurants.
“In spite of everything, there is a lot to be thankful for,” Bay County Public Information officer Ruth Corley told CNN. “People are understanding what is important. Families survived, everything else can be rebuilt.”
Added resident Debbie Brumage: “It’s still paradise, it might be a little tarnished but it’s still paradise.”
CNN’s Jamiel Lynch and Madeline Holcombe contributed to this report.