On Florida’s Forgotten Coast, only the jade-green waters of the Gulf remain as they were before Hurricane Michael ravaged the area and changed it perhaps forever.
Editor’s Note: Since the publishing of this piece last year, Mexico Beach has made some progress in rebuilding including opening the canal and undergoing large-scale construction, but the degree of damage still leaves much to do. The significant funds they have received fall short of financing all of the necessary work. And while many residents have fled the town permanently, other community members persist in their quest to restore paradise.
When I was a kid, we’d spend a couple of weeks every summer at Mexico Beach, an old beach shack community 20 miles from Panama City on the Gulf’s best stretch of powdered sugar sand. I’d wanted to drive over there in the weeks after Hurricane Michael slapped us around, but we had our own problems in Tallahassee, even though we were 100 miles to the east of the eye. My house was fine, but my mother lost five water oaks, three 70-year-old pines, five cedars and six pecan trees during the storm. A red maple blocked the drive, and a sweetgum destroyed the barn. One ancient pecan tree rested perilously on the south end of her house.
I finally got over to Mexico Beach in January, figuring I’d see a lot of rebuilding, and surely (despite all those awful images on television) more left intact than news reports implied. But it was gone—the whole town. I could see foundations, bits of concrete block and forlorn toilets lying on their sides. What had been a cheerful and unpretentious little burg of block houses with wide porches looked like a Syrian village after a particularly vicious battle. There were a few people still picking through the piles, hoping to find an old photograph or two, maybe grandma’s ring or something, anything, from the increasingly mythic time before Michael. There was one big house mostly undamaged—the much reported-on, heavily fortified (and very expensive) “Sand Palace.” But most everything else was devastated, and a signal part of my childhood gone forever. The only familiar element was the jade-green water of the Gulf.
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I headed north on State Road 71, up toward Wewahitchka and the Dead Lakes, through a landscape that should have been creeks, bay swamps and tupelos, big woods smelling of early spring blooms. There should have been miles of fragrant pines, their needles bright frog-green. Instead, the place looked like my grandfather’s photographs of the area around Verdun in 1918, the “Zone Rouge” of World War I: no birds, soil with the vegetation scraped off and the skeletons of trees standing leafless. There wasn’t so much as a week-old sapling pushing its head out of the dirt.
Those pines weren’t mere decoration, nature being lovely for our benefit. They were home to deer, bears, snakes, hawks. They were people’s retirement savings, the children’s college fund, the nest egg. Most of those trees weren’t insured. Most of those souls who counted on those trees will never get their money back.
Michael was bigger than Opal in 1995, more powerful than Kate in 1985, more destructive than Camille in 1969—a Category 5, with winds up to 160 miles per hour, the strongest recorded storm ever to hit North Florida. The hurricane kicked its way ashore near Mexico Beach, tearing off roofs and bending buildings like they were cardboard boxes, while seething Gulf water pushed out windows and smashed in doors. Michael cut channels in Cape San Blas, sucked up a sandy beach on St. George Island and spat it out 200 yards away on top of the main road, leveled dunes and ripped off old brick storefronts from Panama City to Marianna. When Michael roared inland, its winds slashed the forests and wrecked little towns, stomping up into Georgia, tearing a record crop of pecans from the trees.
FEMA AND FIRES
We will never be the same—but we want to be. We crave our old sameness.
Now it’s been almost eight months, yet, as late as the end of April, people were still living in FEMA trailers (if they were lucky) or in their cars or in tents in somebody’s back yard. In Gulf, Liberty, Calhoun and Jackson counties, barns lie open to the sky, and thousands upon thousands of acres of pines, their trunks broken off in the middle, stand like some huge ruined temple.
People call the northern Gulf “the Forgotten Coast.” It was the last part of Florida where you could find a stretch of sand uncrowded by several thousand melanoma candidates jostling for towel and cooler space, one of the last areas of the state to have working waterfronts where shrimpers and oyster gatherers made a living harvesting the sea.
We don’t joke about it anymore: the Forgotten Coast really has been forgotten. At least, that’s how the people who live there feel. The roads have mostly been cleared of storm rubbish, but piles of rebar, pipes, drywall, cracked sinks and sodden sofas sit stacked up in front yards from Lynne Haven to Grand Ridge: maybe in a few hundred years they’ll grass over and become archaeological curiosities—early 21st-century midden mounds. Far more dangerous is the wood lying around, drying into a major fire hazard. In March, more than 8,000 acres of Gulf County burned. There’s another 350,000 acres of splintered forest, hunks of wood drying out just in time for Florida’s always-vigorous wildfire season.
Yes, the federal government has coughed up $1 billion in aid. It sounds like a lot. But the counties assaulted by Michael lost more than that in crop value alone. Add in property destruction and the number exceeds $6 billion. As I’m writing this, Congress has yet to pass a comprehensive disaster relief bill. The parties are squabbling over which area gets what: more cash for flooding in the Midwest? More paper towels for Puerto Rico? The 16 counties suffering the worst of the hurricane are sparsely populated compared with the suburbanized, paved-over rest of Florida. This ain’t the I-4 Corridor or Miami-Dade. This is the Florida equivalent of la France profonde, Deep Florida, far from the cities, far from the glitz, far from the money: old, rural, traditionalist, with its cotton fields and hog pens, its roadside shacks selling boiled peanuts, its billboards hollering “Jesus Is Lord!”
Or, to put it another way, one part of Florida politicians can easily ignore. There’s not much money to chase here. Few movers and shakers. The white people largely vote Republican; the black people largely vote Democrat, but they’re outnumbered, so the Panhandle is always described as “conservative.” If only the powerful cared about conserving us.
No doubt the Federal Emergency Management Agency is full of hard-working, well-meaning people, but Michael’s victims perceive a marked lack of exertion on their behalf. A young woman from Bay County told a reporter from the Gainesville Sun, “I have read about hurricanes Katrina, Andrew and Harvey referred to in the news repeatedly since they happened. But it seemed like in a matter of days we were forgotten.”
In March, I took another drive, this time to Liberty County, where I saw a hole in Eden. In the weeks after Michael, with its flaying wet gusts, the ground in Bristol tore itself open, forming a chasm 250 feet long, 60 feet wide, 40 feet deep.
It swallowed the street. It swallowed whole trees. It may swallow some of the old graves in the town cemetery.
I’m not being merely metaphorical about Eden: In the 1940s, an eccentric white man, Baptist preacher and NAACP lawyer named E.E. Callaway theorized that Adam and Eve’s ur-Garden was not located somewhere in the Holy Land, but right here in Liberty County, Florida. A four-headed river flowed out of Eden; just outside Bristol, the Apalachicola River splits into four, exactly as the Bible describes the Tigris, the Pishon, the Gihon and the Euphrates emerging from humankind’s first home. Noah built the ark out of gopherwood, an exceedingly rare tree. And lo, the Torreya taxifolia—gopherwood—grows right there in Liberty County’s steephead ravines. Ergo, Bristol is the original Paradise.
It’s sad to see paradise disfigured with a gash in its pale red earth, like the gates of hell; it’s sad to discover that the glorious ravines, once verdant with gopherwood trees, look as though they’ve been visited by the plague. I mourn the way Highway 90 is bare of some of the centuries-old oaks that used to line it; I barely recognize downtown Marianna. I always assumed the landscape I love was as immutable as Florida’s sapphire springs or ancient cypresses, as eternal as the Parthenon or Notre Dame de Paris. The springs are cloudy with polluted run-off from too much building; and the world watched Notre Dame’s spire burn and crumble and finally fall to ashes on the ground. Between greed, the ravages of a warming planet and the neglect of a clueless government, anything, no matter how beautiful or historic, can be—will be—damaged or lost.