With Spring Break Tourism Coming Up, Port St. Joe Sees Progress Ahead After Brutal Hurricane Michael

Cruising along Highway 98’s scenic shoreline, the impact of Hurricane Michael is brutally evident four months after the Category 4 storm pulverized this town that was the birthplace of the Florida Constitution.

Stately homes along Constitution Drive once valued at $400,000 and higher are gutted or demolished, unable to withstand the pounding storm surge and driving winds that side-swiped the waterfront town of about 3,500 just 12 miles southeast of where Michael made landfall.

Mexico Beach was declared “wiped out” by federal emergency management officials, and it is uncertain if it will ever return to its former glory as a seaside tourist destination for southerners and spring breakers.

St. Joe Beach, an unincorporated community adjacent to Mexico Beach but in Gulf County, got shellacked by the October 10 hurricane. Storefronts are buried in sand. Condos have shifted off their foundation. But four months later, roofers are nailing down tar paper and laborers are fastening Tyvek to wooden frames.

“There was so much devastation everybody was in shock,” said Kim Hewitt, who owns The Loft on Reid gift and antique store. “There was nothing. No gas stations. No restaurants. It was just dead.”

‘Progress every day’
As devastating as Michael was, Port St. Joe missed the direct punch of the storm.

Many of the stores along downtown’s main drag, Reid Avenue, were flooded. Several lost their roofs and siding.

The south side of the street got it a lot worse than her side, and her store was spared the brunt of the damage. She watched the news reports of flooding from Montgomery, Alabama. The Boutique Flowers and Gifts across the street had the roof of the Masonic Lodge land on top of it.

“We were very fortunate to not have any damage, but we feel bad for them,” Hewitt said.

Nonetheless, she closed shop for October and November and didn’t reopen until December and business has been good.

“We are getting a lot of sightseers, people coming in to see what happened to Port St. Joe and Mexico Beach,” she said.

Most stores and restaurants are open, despite the exposed roof beams and plywood boards covering the windows of their neighbors. About 75 percent of the downtown shops are up and running, a key to the town’s survival as a tourist destination.

“The streets are bustling every day,” said Jennifer Hatchell, who moved to WindMark Beach northwest of Port St. Joe two months ago. “It feels like a vibrant community again. We’re seeing progress every day.”

By the numbers
All of Gulf County got clobbered with the full force of Michael. Damage throughout its sparsely populated 756 square miles has been categorized as catastrophic by FEMA. Some 266,000 acres of timber land and field crops were destroyed or severely damaged.

The seafood industry around St. Joseph Bay suffered huge setbacks as well, particularly scallop restoration projects. Some 400 vessels in Gulf and Bay counties were destroyed, and Port St. Joe’s marina was severely damaged.

Gulf County residents have received $130 million in federal funds, including 2,769 individuals or households approved for nearly $10 million in federal grants and more than $6.4 million has been approved for basic repairs for 921 homeowners.

Some 954 flood insurance claims have been filed, and $70 million in claims have been filed.

More than 5,400 survivors – a third of Gulf County’s population – were put in touch with disaster resources and recovery partners for assistance beyond what FEMA could provide.

The full impact of the storm has yet to be tallied. Port St. Joe is still conducting damage assessments, putting a value to things and negotiating with insurance adjusters.

And every week, FEMA comes to visit to conduct its own inspections. While the City Commission met Tuesday to get updates on the hurricane recovery efforts, FEMA officials were inspecting the city’s wastewater management system.

“Our city infrastructure got hit hard,” City Manager Jim Anderson said.

Not only buildings and parks, but roads, water and sewer, too.

The biggest hit was the wastewater utility. Fifteen lift stations were down, well beyond the city’s available funds. The city is seeking grant money from the Department of Environmental Protection’s revolving fund to cover those repair costs.

On a bright note, the insurance company gave the city an initial check for $500,000 and an additional one more recently for $800,000.

But the city stands to lose revenue from its water and sewer utilities. Of the roughly 1,800 housing units in the 12-square mile city of Port St. Joe, the city lost an estimated 243 water and sewer customers, Anderson said.

That number could change as officials continue to inventory the damage.

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SOURCE: Tallahassee Democrat, Jeffrey Schweers