Hurricane Michael may have forever changed unspoiled part of Florida Panhandle known as the ‘Forgotten Coast’
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 a week 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.
It was 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 experience.
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.
It was 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, the way places like Destin have been developed. It didn’t attract rowdy college students for spring breaks, like Panama City Beach.
It was just a quiet, out-of-the-way place where one could go to get away from it all. Internet and cell phone service was 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 the west 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, from the 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 633,000-acre 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, it was 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 that work 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 multi-unit condos and high-rise hotels will replace the charming single-family homes that were 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. Pictures and videos showed big gaps where asphalt used to be.
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.