‘For­got­ten Coast’

Hur­ri­cane may for­ever change trips to Florida’s Pan­han­dle

Daily Southtown (Sunday) - - Front Page - Ted Slowik

One could find spir­i­tual re­newal amid quiet soli­tude along a re­mote stretch of nat­u­rally beau­ti­ful beach on Florida’s Pan­han­dle.

Some 15 years ago, I found a per­fect va­ca­tion spot along the Gulf Coast and have re­turned for aweek nearly ev­ery March. The an­tic­i­pa­tion of feel­ing warm sun­shine and 70-de­gree tem­per­a­tures could get one through Chicago’s cold months of Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary.

It­was re­lax­ing to camp in a state park and en­joy long days with noth­ing to do but walk along white-sand beaches, read books and play gui­tar at night around a camp­fire.

Hur­ri­cane Michael might have for­ever changed that expe- ri­ence.

When the Cat­e­gory 4 storm made land­fall on Oct. 10, its 150-mph winds and 12-foot storm surge wiped out the town of Mex­ico Beach, pop­u­la­tion 1,072. It flipped planes and tore roofs off hang­ers at Tyn­dell Air Force Base and dam­aged build­ings in the town of Port St. Joe. At least 35 deaths have been at­trib­uted to the storm.

It­was the strong­est hur­ri­cane on record to hit the Florida Pan­han­dle. It flat­tened miles of pine for­est be­tween Panama City and Apalachicola, where gen­er­a­tions of fam­i­lies have fished the gulf for some of the best-tast­ing shrimp and oys­ters to be found any­where.

Lo­cals call it the “For­got­ten Coast,” or “old Florida.” Vis­it­ing the re­gion was like step­ping back decades in time. It wasn’t spoiled with high-rise ho­tels and con­dos, the­way places like Destin have been de­vel­oped. It didn’t at­tract

rowdy col­lege stu­dents for spring breaks, like Panama City Beach.

It­was just a quiet, out-of-the-way place where one could go to get away from it all. In­ter­net and cell­phone ser­vice­was some­times spotty, so you could lit­er­ally get “off the grid.”

One rea­son the re­gion re­mained un­spoiled was its dis­tance from in­ter­state high­ways. The coast is about a two-hour drive south of I-10, the main east-west route. I-65 curves far to thewest to­ward Mo­bile, Ala., and I-75 is hun­dreds of miles to the east.

To reach the For­got­ten Coast one must spend hours driv­ing along ru­ral high­ways through small towns, past sou­venir stands and shops sell­ing Tu­pelo honey, pecans and other lo­cal goods.

There are other re­mote places across Amer­ica, fromthe desert south­west to the woods of Maine. But it’s 1,000 miles from Chicago to the For­got­ten Coast, a trip that could be made in a day’s drive, al­beit a long day of about 16 hours.

The For­got­ten Coast is sep­a­rated from Tal­la­has­see by the 633,000acre Apalachicola Na­tional For­est. My an­nual des­ti­na­tion was T.H. Stone Memo­rial St. Joseph Penin­sula State Park. Camp­sites have elec­tric­ity and ac­cess to run­ning wa­ter and hot show­ers, so campers can rough it while still en­joy­ing some mod­ern con­ve­niences.

There’s a sin­gle gas sta­tion on the penin­sula and a store called the Cape Trad­ing Post where you can buy fire­wood, ice, propane can­is­ters, gro­ceries and other camp­ing essen­tials.

The park sits across St. Joseph Bay from Mex­ico Beach at the tip of a 15-mile-long penin­sula that ex­tends north­ward from Cape San Blas. That is, it­was a 15-mile-long penin­sula un­til Oct. 10. Hur­ri­cane Michael cut a new chan­nel be­tween the Gulf of Mex­ico and St. Joseph Bay roughly in the mid­dle of the penin­sula, in­side the state park.

The camp­ground is now lo­cated on an is­land. On Fri­day, I asked the Florida Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion— which over­sees Florida’s 175 state parks— about a time­line to re­open the park. I asked whether of­fi­cials planned to re­store the breach or build a bridge, and when the camp­ground might again be ac­ces­si­ble by ve­hi­cle.

A time­line for re­open­ing the park is un­known as of­fi­cials fo­cus on cleanup ef­forts and staff safety, FDEP spokes­woman Sarah Shellabarger said.

“It is an­tic­i­pated that­work crews will need to fill new chan­nels at T.H. Stone Memo­rial St. Joseph Penin­sula State Park, as the camp­ground and na­ture trails have been cut off from the park en­trance as a re­sult of the storm,” Shellabarger said.

At the height of the storm, 71 Florida state parks were closed, she added. As of Fri­day, 13 re­mained closed due to storm dam­age, she said.

The greater con­cern in Hur­ri­cane Michael’s af­ter­math should be with the fam­i­lies of peo­ple who lost their lives and with res­i­dents who lost all their pos­ses­sions when the storm swept away their homes.

Fam­i­lies will heal from their losses and com­mu­ni­ties will be re­built. On so­cial me­dia, some ex­pressed con­cern that places like Mex­ico Beach and Port St. Joe will never be the same. There is con­cern that mul­tiu­nit con­dos and high-rise ho­tels will re­place the charm­ing sin­gle-fam­ily homes thatwere de­stroyed.

Peo­ple who vis­ited or lived in Cape San Blas along St. Joseph Penin­sula shared sim­i­lar con­cerns. Many struc­tures sur­vived the storm, but the hur­ri­cane wiped out the road on the penin­sula.

The re­gion has been hit be­fore by other hur­ri­canes, such as Ivan in 2004 and Den­nis in 2005. Michael, how­ever, in­flicted greater dam­age across a wider area.

Some might ques­tion the wis­dom of re­build­ing in ar­eas that might now be more prone to dev­as­ta­tion due to stronger storms re­sult­ing from cli­mate change. That’s a ques­tion left for reg­u­la­tors, in­sur­ers, in­vestors and oth­ers to an­swer.

A state park is un­doubt­edly a wise use of land that is vul­ner­a­ble to storm dam­age.

There is no great ex­pense in main­tain­ing camp­sites and a few con­crete-block build­ings with toi­lets, sinks and show­ers. The land is pub­licly ac­ces­si­ble at an af­ford­able cost, and vis­i­tors can ap­pre­ci­ate the area’s nat­u­ral beauty and peace­ful sur­round­ings.

That is, un­til the next ma­jor storm un­leashes its de­struc­tive fury upon the land­scape.

CHRIS URSO/TAMPA BAY TIMES

Ve­hi­cles are parked along Cape San Blas Road near where the road was washed away by the strength of Hur­ri­cane Michael on Oct. 13 in Cape San Blas, Fla. St. Joseph Penin­sula is lo­cated near Mex­ico Beach, where the hur­ri­cane hit.

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