We love the Florida Panhandle. The tourism industry has lots of labels for it: “The Forgotten Coast”, “Old Florida,” “Florida as it Was,” and so on. The panhandle is populated by generations of oystermen and shrimpers, ship builders, fishing charters and shopkeepers who live in small costal towns, among them Mexico Beach and Port St. Joe. The news cycle turns quickly these days but you may recall last November hurricane Michael paid a visit. It was a dramatic storm that scoured the panhandle. We checked with our usual campgrounds in January. When we learned they were open for business, we headed south without hesitation.
We started noticing tree damage as soon as we crossed I-10 into Florida. At first trees were bent over or uprooted as if some huge hand had pushed them aside like wheat. That gave way to miles of trunks. The wind was so fierce the trees just snapped in half, leaving the trunks sticking up like wireless phone poles. Then there was the wreckage. There were enormous piles of debris that once were houses. Everywhere trucks were reconnecting utilities or scooping huge piles of debris into trucks; and this was just as we were entering Florida. By the time we reached Port St. Joe, the damage was stunning. By way of geography. Port St. Joe is a few miles east of Mexico Beach, the area that famously took a direct hit from Michael. Residents of Port St. Joe were somewhat more fortunate; they had 14 – 20 feet of water surge several blocks into the city in addition to wind and rain, but it was not obliterated. Still, so many people in Port St. Joe lost everything in the storm.
Our campground is much changed. The picture on my blog masthead was taken in February 2018 from our site in Presnell’s RV park. The park was populated by fishers, kayakers and hanger-outers. We all decorated our sites like a home away from home, and we held fish frys and potluck dinners. The oak trees that shaded the campground have been stripped of all their branches and leaves. Miraculously, the trunks and main branches remained. About half the campground population consists of contractors and workers who have been here since the hurricane left. Our neighbor’s company specializes in debris removal. They have about 6 or 7 huge bunkhouse style campers for their crews in addition to others who are staying at the nearby hotel. Their first job was to clear away all the debris in the campground so that they would have a place to stay. Theirs is a rough life; work all day, come back and crash for the night, get up and do it all again. They’ve been doing that since November with no sign of stopping. A few of us regulars are back too. We hang out our RV doo-dads and colorful lights, but we’re very mindful of the hardships around us.
People are cleaning up. At the moment the cleanup is a reminder of all that is lost. Most of the stately old homes that line St. Joseph bay are unlivable and being demolished. Drive by a house in the morning, by afternoon it is an empty lot fronted by an enormous mound of trash and debris. The debris looks nondescript, just piles of tree trunks and branches, hunks of shattered lumber, drywall, concrete and the like, but there are probably yearbooks and wedding albums among the ruins. I can’t imagine what that must feel like. At some point the mountains of debris will be removed, and people will decide what to do with their now open spaces. We drove on a street about two blocks back from the main drag and saw an unusual sight—bare earth all the way through to the bay.
It remains to be seen how the area will recover. Like most humans, I am selfish and I don’t like change. I don’t want to see developers come in and change the landscape by putting up huge condominiums and chain restaurants. I want all the people who have been here since “my grandaddy’s father bought this land” to stay here. When people with limited resources are displaced, many don’t return. The small businesses, homes and beach houses that gave the area its character can’t be rebuilt as they were, but building a hurricane compliant structure is a cost beyond the average homebuilder. Still the town is abuzz with roofers and contractors and you can hear nail guns and circular saws everywhere. At the beach house next to our campground, the crew comes every morning and cranks up the Tex-mex music while they work.
The sun is shining on St. Joseph Bay as I write this. Mullet, which happen to be the world’s silliest fish are leaping out of the water. This morning I saw a bald eagle snare an unlucky mullet. It’s too windy to kayak today, but soon we’ll head out to paddle the new channel cut by Michael on nearby Cape San Blas. Before the storm Cape San Blas was a long narrow spit between St. Joseph Bay and the Gulf, the tip of which had a lovely state park. Michael carved a new channel through the Cape, severing the state park from the main land. The vast open stretch of sand and water is a dramatic change from the dunes and seagrass of before. The section of the Cape that was the state park was undeveloped. Boardwalks wound over sand dunes to the gulf beach. It was those dunes that prevented Michael from destroying the state park—only the unprotected road was swept away. We walked along the new coastline carved by the hurricane. The massive dunes on the Gulf side were carved out with tons of loose sand piled just ahead of them. We came around to the lee side of the dunes which were still covered in grass. We met a couple park rangers and asked about the area when one of them spotted a guy who was walking along the top of the dune. “Sir,” he yelled “That dune is the only reason everything on this side is still here. Please step directly off the dune in as short a path as you can.” The guy proceeded to slide down the dune, tearing a path in the fragile grass. The ranger rolled his eyes and sighed. It’s been a long frustrating time for them, I imagine. There are signs that the Cape is trying to heal itself. The channel Michael cut was 30 feet deep, but the ranger told us that each change of the tide shapes the channel. Nature does not abide by humankind’s schedule so it will be quite a while before it’s possible to cross over. The general consensus is to leave it up to mother nature to heal the breach—or not.
Every day we drive through the area there is progress of a sort. The piles of debris are cleared, lots are graded and stand empty waiting for insurance adjustments and FEMA assistance. Congregations hold services next to churches covered in flapping blue tarps. Restaurants reopen. People are getting back on their feet. It’s going to take time. I read an excellent article in the Port St. Joe Star by Tim Croft that sums up the experience of the months since hurricane Michael. Here’s a link to it: Year in Review: Hurricane Michael Pulverizes Coast. It is a wonderful piece of journalism.