Man Whose Mexico Beach House Was One of Last Standing After Hurricane Michael Calls Out Climate Denier Politicians

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By Julie Dermansky, a multimedia reporter and artist based in New Orleans. She is an affiliate scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Visit her website at www.jsdart.com., NY. Originally published at DeSmog Blog

In Mexico Beach, Florida, Russell King’s house is the only beachfront property that survived Hurricane Michael with little damage. But the fact it survived the latest record-breaking hurricane doesn’t give King peace of mind. Can it withstand the next storm that comes its way?

Climate scientists predict that storms will continue to intensify, and King takes this to heart, worrying the next one could take down his house. I met King on October 14, four days after Hurricane Michael made landfall and wiped out a large portion of Mexico Beach, a small town on Florida’s panhandle. The storm swept into the area with winds of up to 155 miles per hour (mph), just two shy of reaching a Category 5 storm designation.

Sand Palace, Russell King’s House in Mexico Beach.

King’s home, which he owns with his nephew, Dr. Lebron Lackey, was built to withstand 240 mph winds, well beyond the standards of the current building code. Nearby houses built to the latest code all sustained substantial damage. Most of those still standing will likely need to be torn down. About a mile east on Highway 98, the main road along the coast, the top two floors of a four-story house moved from the beach to the road. The bottom floors were obliterated.

Owners of a home built to the latest building code in Mexico Beach, Florida, retrieve belongings from the top two stories that were pushed by Michael’s storm surge onto Highway 98. 

Owner shows me on his cellphone what his four story home looked like before Hurricane Michael.

I was preparing to camp out in my car on the beach near King’s home when he graciously invited me in. “We still have dry beds,” he said. That night we talked over candlelight about climate change and politics.

King, a former Air Force Lt. Colonel and practicing lawyer, is a Republican, but voted for Hillary Clinton in the last presidential election because he sees Donald Trump’s stance on climate science as a threat to the country. “Let’s get to the facts and truth, and don’t worry about if it comes from the right or the left,“ King said.

It troubles him that people are confusing the message with the messenger when it comes to science. King pleads with his climate-denier friends to watch Al Gore’s latest film, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, and form their own opinions, rather than going along with what politicians say.

As the sun came up, we gazed out from the balcony over the destruction below. The few structures still standing appeared damaged beyond repair. Many others were completely gone.

Home on Mexico Beach near the Kings’ home.

Boat sandwiched between homes in Mexico Beach, Florida.

“This is what my view is going to be for a long time,” King said. He worries things will never be the same there, and feels terrible for his neighbors. Many of the houses in Mexico Beach were decades old, owned by middle-class families who won’t have the money to rebuild to the current building code, even though the code is not strong enough to protect from a storm like Michael.

A command center for first responders and the military was set up to the right of his house, in the midst of an apocalyptic landscape of cars wrapped around bare trees and cement slabs where houses once stood. To the left of his house destruction stretched as far as the eye could see. The view of the beautiful beach is marred by the remains of the town’s wooden pier, now ripped apart.

Russell King and his nephew, Dr. Lebron Lackey, in Mexico Beach, Florida, a couple blocks from their home.

“I’m tired of politicians lying to us. The American people need to understand they are lying,” King said. “The people who are denying climate change are not telling the truth.”

He likened the misinformation campaign against climate science to the campaign to protect the tobacco industry, which claimed cigarettes were no threat to human health. He was well aware that the fossil fuel industry is using the same tobacco industry playbook and lobbyists to sow doubt about climate change. “There is nothing clean about coal,” King said, just like there is nothing healthy about smoking cigarettes.

King’s nephew, on the other hand, is not convinced that humankind is playing a key role in changing the climate, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, and doubts that there is much humans can do now to slow the warming climate. He voted for Trump and, though he doesn’t agree with everything Trump does or says, readily repeats common climate denial talking points.

On October 15, I photographed hand-painted signs on Highway 98 that said: “Make Mexico Beach Great Again.” As I focused on the signs and documented the destruction, a number of helicopters flew over, one of them with President Trump and the First Lady aboard. They were surveying the damage from the air before visiting Lynn Haven, a small town next to Panama City.


City Hall in Mexico Beach, Florida.

Building damaged by Hurricane Michael with a message for Trump.

Trump described the destruction as “tough to see,” but the experience had no effect on his stance on climate change. Following his visit to Florida and Georgia to see the storm’s damage, he told Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes that he doesn’t deny climate change but then went on to say the climate would swing back on its own.

Florida Governor Rick Scott, who is trying to win a Senate seat, is, like Trump, a climate change denier. Scott reportedly banned the use of the terms “climate change” and “global warning” by the staff of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. During an October 14 press conference at a command center outside of Panama City, he reiterated his stance that climate science is undecided.

Most of the people I spoke to in Mexico Beach held the view that the climate is changing, but that it has little to do with humankind. Despite their personal loss, they told me that they have faith that God and the Trump administration will help them rebuild.

Highway 98 in Mexico Beach, Florida.

Owner of the Driftwood Inn inspecting the damage to his hotel in Mexico Beach, Florida.

I met the owner of the Driftwood Inn in front of his hotel on Highway 98. “Forty-two years down the drain,” he said, surveying the damage to his beloved inn. When asked what he thinks about humanity’s role in the recent record-breaking storms, he didn’t see a connection. He mused that Democrats will likely blame Trump for Hurricane Michael’s damage. Inside the shell of his hotel, tears ran down his face as he looked out on to the Gulf.

Further up the road, I climbed over big chunks of highway collapsed onto the beach in order to get to the El Governor Motel, an area landmark also badly damaged by the storm. There was a familiar whiff of red tide. For a moment, my breathing was restricted and the back of my throat felt scratchy.

As the storm approached, many wondered if it might break up a persistent red tide event that has lingered since last year, following Hurricane Irma and resulting in an unprecedented fishkill. I found my answer in that moment and the next day when I found dead fish along the Gulf shoreline: Hurricane Michael did not clear this persistent bloom of toxic algae affecting both Florida coasts.


President Trump’s entourage flying over El Governor Motel in Mexico Beach during a visit to survey Hurricane Michael’s damage.

Hurricane Michael damage in Mexico Beach, Florida.

Though King was the only person I met in Mexico Beach who advocated that society should take whatever actions possible to prevent further global warming, he’s not the only one calling out politicians for their denial on climate change. The American Meteorological Society responded to President Trump’s 60 Minutes interview with a letter to Trump that both confirms the scientific consensus on climate change and states: “You also said that scientists are making this political, which is misleading and very damaging. The scientific community welcomes all who commit to the pursuit of understanding through science, irrespective of their political views, religious beliefs, and ethical values.”

King believes politicians who continue to deny science for their own personal gain lack a conscience. Though he is glad his home withstood Michael, it is little consolation to him, knowing that the path humans are on is leading to planetary peril.

Sign on a tree in Lynn Haven, Florida.

On my way out of the area, I stopped in front of a home in Lynn Haven that had been crushed by trees. As I photographed a sign tacked to a damaged tree offering free firewood to anyone who cut it, I ran into David Passey, an external affairs director for FEMA, who I met a few days earlier.

Waffle House in Callaway, Florida, damaged by Hurricane Michael.

He is based in California, and said he’d be headed back west soon, where the risk of wildfires continues to rise due to warming temperatures. That morning, he received an advisory stating that power companies were preemptively shutting off power in six counties in Northern California that were under threat of a new round of fires. It was the first time he believes PG&E had taken such a defensive move. He told me the company reasoned it would lessen the damage if fire arrived, and make it possible to restore equipment faster.

Back at my desk just outside of New Orleans, I am aware that my own house would not likely survive a Category 4 storm. The National Weather Service’s storm surge chart shows my location under water with a Cat 4 storm.

With the midterm elections heating up, I reached out to climate scientist Michael Mann for his thoughts on politicians’ culpability around climate change.

He did not mince words: “Climate change-denying politicians are quite literally putting people in harm’s way by refusing to acknowledge the heightened threat posed by hurricanes supercharged by warming seas,” Mann said. “They are putting humanity in harm’s way by denying the larger climate threat and blocking policies in support of climate action.”

Brandy Wood Jessen spray-painting a message on the roof of a home on Highway 98 in Mexico Beach, Florida.

Main image: Sign in Callaway, Florida, damaged by Hurricane Michael. Credit: All photos by Julie Dermansky for DeSmog

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17 comments

  1. JW

    So, the question is how do those of us who are far away from climate deniers (in my case, literally, being from the northeastern US) reach out to them?

    Or should our efforts be focused on fighting the fossil fuel companies that are spreading this misinformation? But a chicken and egg problem: how do we fight the fossil fuel lobby’s deep pockets without these other people on our side?

    Can their opposition be sidestepped like it was with gay rights, especially since it’s literally the same people?

    Reply
  2. Louis Fyne

    title should read Man Calls out Climate Denier Politicans and Consumerists

    Not meaning to sound like a jerk, but obviously it will sound like victim blaming….headline should read: man with big house on the beach blames politicians but doesn’t blame himself or fellow energy hog consumerists.

    Or: Man blames politicians for not making other people cut their CO2 footprint.

    just saying.

    CO2 cutting prisoners’ dilemma I guess. If no one else is consuming less, I won’t either. But I’ll recycling and bring my own canvas bag to Whole Foods. That’ll do it.

    Reply
    1. pretzelattack

      his house stood, the only one that did, because he prepared beforehand and built it far beyond the code requirements. and why shouldn’t he blame politicians for politicising the science and not dealing with the problem.

      Reply
    2. rd

      There are actually four parts to this:

      1. Personal CO2 and methane footprint and personal measures to reduce it;
      2. Societal push to reduce GHG emissions;
      3. Personal measures to reduce risk from impacts of climate change; and
      4. Societal measures to reduce risk from impacts of climate change.

      Dr. King is asking society and politicians to address the causes and impacts of climate change (items 2 and 4).

      Dr. King clearly prepared his beach abode to withstand a storm like this (item 3).

      The article did not provide any information about Dr. King’s personal measures to reduce GHG emissions, so we have no basis for comment on that. He clearly has a fairly large second home, which presumably is not as energy efficient as a smaller home, but we don’t know much else.

      However, I am personally a little tired of having people who live in massive homes and fly around on private jets lecturing us on GHG emissions and climate change. I live in a pretty modest sized home and drive a hybrid car, so my carbon footprint is likely a fraction of many of the people lecturing us.

      Reply
  3. Peter Lynch

    The people of Florida need help and as long as they have a very rich Governor, who refused to even meet with 38 Florida city majors who came to BEG him to wake up a few years ago.- you will get nothing from him. Regarding our great leader the only help, you will get is “if you want America to be great again – do it yourself, I do not like losers”. This coming from a real American 4 time draft dodger. My prayers are with you but you will get no help form those two ignorant, greedy “leaders” (haha just kidding about being a leader.

    Reply
  4. Brooklin Bridge

    Our neoliberal Democrats barely pay lip service climate change, but will never, ever do anything about it on their own. What’s needed is an effort to show Republicans how they can enrich themselves (further) by taking credit for being the true climate change recognizers and the ones who have been working quietly in the background to save humanity through massive infusions of free cash to giant corporations, bankers, financiers and elite politicians (thus preventing this lucre from getting into the hands of the masses for co2 producing things like heat and gas and subsistence products that take so much energy to produce).

    Republicans get things done. If they take up the banner (and the lure of profit tends to be much stronger than, ew, Science, gag, as a stimulus) for a global shift to renewables, it will happen. Otherwise, the good inhabitants of Mexico Beach are what we face in the most powerful 20 – 30 percent of the electorate (that part of the electorate whose votes are actually counted); a highly coordinated, well funded, amazingly thorough and complete brain wash that results over and over again in a breathtakingly honest and sincere denial of facts in the face of existential proof.

    The Dems will follow like the little Gollums they are.

    Reply
  5. SteveB

    “Owners of a home built to the latest building code in Mexico Beach, Florida, retrieve belongings from the top two stories that were pushed by Michael’s storm surge onto Highway 98.”

    Curious as to whether the “latest building code” to which they refer is the “Miami-Dade” version?

    Reply
    1. DanB

      I recall that in the aftermath of hurricane Andrew -with gusts around 200 MPH if I recall- that building codes were found to have been violated with regularity in the Miami area. So it’s possible these homes actually were not built to current code.

      Reply
  6. drb48

    There would of course be no climate science denying politicians in office without the climate science denying voters that elected them. Who, based on the quotes in the article, have learned nothing.

    Reply
    1. JTMcPhee

      Voters, per the information posted right here at NC, have no effect on policy. Money talks. The rulers control education and the Narrative. Blaming impotent mopes for the depredations of the PTB might be comforting condescension, but not factual. And voter non-choices do not bring on stuff like what is reported here, “39 new or expanded petrochemical facilities permitted along Gulf Coast,” http://www.environmentalintegrity.org/news/31-new-or-expanded-petrochemical-plants/

      Money = power. Mopes got no money. And their ability to organize to force survivable policies has been intentionally hamstrung for generations now.

      Reply
  7. The Rev Kev

    Lot of the people in this article seem to deny any connection with what has just happened to them and climate change but instead put their faith in god and Trump. Well, you can’t help people that aren’t prepared to help themselves so it looks like things are going to have to change. Perhaps tell the people in these areas that there will be no future Federal insurance funds available to help them rebuild in the same spot but that there will be funds to help them move inland.
    Have the local councils say that they will issue permits to rebuild but that they will have to sign away any legal rights by doing so and that they cannot sue the council for the next disaster. Upgrade the building codes too while they are at it. Maybe too have the insurance companies properly price in the risk of rebuilding as why should people in other safer areas carry the cost of supporting people in dangerous zones?
    So the long and the short of it is that if you have the money and the determination to build in places like this, then the consequences will be on your neck entirely. And any repairs or rebuilds will have to come entirely out your own piggy bank.

    Reply
  8. RUKidding

    There’s a lot I could say, but it would perhaps be bannable, at worst, or, at least, impolite.

    I’m truly tired of these climate-denier yutzes who vote endlessly for grifters and charlatans who tell them the fairy tales they want to hear. All while decrying minorities, the damn Libruls and wimminz for ruining their lives in some way. All while railing about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and no taxes ever for anything blah de blah.

    But the first time a disaster like this happens, Boom! There they are with their hands out begging the damn gubmint that they profess to hate so much to “save” them. And save them for what?? To rebuild in the exact same place that has been proven to be unsafe and not a good plan to build there?? Or to give them PLENTY of money to move somewhere else. All while decrying the worthless poorz – who are somehow ruining their precious lives – for needing assistance as well.

    I’ll stop there. I don’t have a lot of compassion anymore for citizens who vote the way they do, and then act surprised when there are consequences for their determination to completely ignore: a) facts, b) reality, and c) uncommon sense.

    I don’t wish any of them ill. Good luck. But if they keep voting, believing, acting the way they do, this will be an endless repetitive cycle of stupidity, greed and hatred. Sadly.

    Reply
    1. JTMcPhee

      And maybe one might ponder by what processes and systems those yutzes got to the position of “denying climate change.” And then supposedly voting for what’s happening? Which of course clearly now is not an ‘endless cycle,” but barring rapid major changes in the many systems that brought this about, is a fall off a cliff.

      And then rather than dumping schadenfreude on them, ask by what processes and initiatives other humans who would dearly love to see their species, their children and grandchildren, learn to live, just live, and in ways that are organized to stop the plunder in which they are just Bernays-submerged consumer-cannon-fodder.

      And what choices are “citizens” presented with in the electoral processes? Any that might actually lead to a “better world” for them and their families and the wider world of Nature?

      Reply
      1. Eclair

        ‘And maybe one might ponder by what processes and systems those yutzes got to the position of “denying climate change.”‘

        Thank you, JT. The ‘manufacture consent’ machine has been in overdrive as regards climate change (climate disruption, climate variability, global warming). It can, as well as gaining the ‘consent’ of the electorate for war, also work to lull the electorate into disregarding the warming water in our planetary pot.

        But, depending on what you read, anywhere from 3.5% to 10% to 25% of the population is what it takes for a new idea, or paradigm, or revolution (peaceful, natch) to take hold.

        Reply
  9. Norb

    The photo showing Osprey’s flying over the devastation is very poignant. The MIC graft machine trundles along, while the ignorant masses rise their hands to the sky seeking deliverance, all the while, refusing to make the connection between their hardship and suffering and the incompatible motivations driving the whole system.

    It is very telling that the author could find only one citizen in all of Mexico Beach who sees the need for drastic systems change- King, the man who took personal action to protect his property and interests in the face of incontrovertible facts.

    But that is the rub- while the masses look for comfort in God and Trump, seeking deliverance and salvation form those sources, such efforts will ultimately be futile because elite interests run counter to the masses. It will take real leadership from men/women like King, looking beyond their own personal interests and using their intellect and resources to strengthen broad social goals.

    For the resources needed to keep those two Osprey’s in the air, I bet most of Mexico Beach could be rebuilt in a sane and rational manner to better survive what is to come. But the social system as it is, is hell bent on grinding down society and the world in the name of profit.

    As long as the elite running the show continue to look at the effects of climate change as a means for further profit making, the future looks bleak. Profiteering will always find an outlet unless strenuously checked.

    The concentration of wealth and power will continue, with the masses seen as expendable. This is the fact that people can’t get their heads around, even as they experience the destruction of their community firsthand. Sooner or later you can’t recover form loss- you are ground down into oblivion.

    Personal wake-up calls happen often, however, what is needed is a social wake-up call. A truly catastrophic event seems inevitable because indoctrinated denial leads to that outcome due to unpreparedness. One must be willing to choose social survival over personal interest. It is this sense of social sacrifice that is twisted beyond common meaning by an exploitive elite. It is the highest form of cynicism. It leads the human mind to inventing guillotines.

    Humanity is plagued by an elite that rises to the top of a social pyramid, with an ignorant mass below. That elite has the choice to either exploit that mass of humanity for their own pleasure, or take on the responsibility of rising that condition to the highest level possible. When viewed in that manner, all of humanity, society, are seen connected as one.

    The sense of victimization must end, and that will take leadership driven by a vision that does not focus on exploitation. Currently, the system is polarizing around the exploiters and the exploited. This is proven out by viewing the aftermath of these tragic events. In a few years, the policy of abandonment will be brutally obvious to all.

    If that abandonment is accepted by the masses as inevitable and natural, the new feudal age being talked about will have materialized.

    Reply

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