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Hurricane Michael: Atlantans face a reckoning at the beach

Metro Atlantans are only gradually digesting just how brutally Hurricane Michael treated the Gulf Coast region they have flocked to, invested in, vacationed at, partied with and cherished for generations.

It wasn’t pleasant. Paradise took a beating.

Patty Baker-McElroy and her husband bought a townhome in Mexico Beach two summers ago after visiting a friend’s place and being smitten by the area east of Panama City Beach.

“It’s an old Florida beach town, no high rises. It’s very homey,” she said.

“They call it ‘The Mayberry of the South.’ I have a T-shirt that actually says that.”

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Now, she said, “they call it ground zero.”

Baker-McElroy, who is Cherokee County’s clerk of courts, searched photos online for clues of how her piece of the Gulf Coast fared. Much of Mexico Beach looked like it was flattened, including near her property. “There was a home next door and it is not there anymore,” she said.

“Our townhome unit is standing, but structurally we are not sure what kind of shape it is in.”

There are clues. In one photo she saw what looked like a window where there shouldn’t be one. She assumes it’s a hole in an outer wall to the master bedroom. Shingles have been blown away. So was her deck, where she had rested and taken in the ocean while recuperating from breast cancer treatment.

“That was like my little piece of heaven to recover by the beach. I can’t explain it, it just made it that much better. They are known for their sunsets right there.”

For decades, Atlantans have been called to a long stretch of the Florida Panhandle’s coastline, from quiet places such as Mexico Beach, to the far livelier Panama City Beach (once known for its raucous spring breaks), to the especially upscale stretches along Fla. 30A and on past Destin.

The six-hour-or-so ride from Atlanta offered a relatively quick dose of sugary white beaches, clear water and, when the weather is right, gentle waves. Atlantans serve as a crucial piece of the area’s tourist economy. A visitor study produced last year for local boosters showed respondents particularly concentrated around North Georgia.

Cindy Echols, a small-business owner from Canton, said she has visited that area of Florida since she was a teen.

“Even in high school I can remember we all went down for spring break. There’s hardly anybody from this area who can’t say they’ve been there for spring break.”

In May, she bought a two-bedroom unit in a Panama City Beach condo tower. She and her husband renovated it over the summer. Early reports from staff at the property suggest the building survived the storm fairly well. But other buildings nearby apparently didn’t, she said.

“They will rebuild,” Echols predicted.

Many owners and visitors in her development are from Georgia, as is clear from looking at the plates on their vehicles, she said. “You are going to see more Georgia tags than you are anything.”

Barry Bramlett of Kennesaw bought a place in a Panama City Beach tower that is part of the Edgewater Beach & Golf Resort. From photos online, the tower looked OK, he said.

Hurricanes are just part of the risk of ocean living, Bramlett said. “They are always going to come through at some point.”

When they do, towers probably are more able to withstand the storms than houses and smaller buildings, he said.

But beach houses are a strong draw.

Atlantans Billy Howard and his wife, Laurie Shock, stumbled on Mexico Beach years ago. He had vacationed in places farther west, such as Grayton Beach and Seagrove Beach.

But Mexico Beach offered more accessible prices and fewer people, he said. They joined with friends and Shock’s father to buy and renovate a 100-year-old house on a nearby bluff.

Billy Howard and Laurie Shock joined with friends and family to buy and renovate a 100-year-old home near Mexico Beach in Florida. (Here’s how it looked after the renovation.) They sold the house a few years ago, with Howard worried about hurricane risks. Hurricane Michael recently battered the home, tearing off the porch and heavily damaging the roof, Howard said. SPECIAL (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

“We put our heart and soul into it,” Howard said.

Under the home’s linoleum they found heart of pine floors.

“It was a place that we loved, but it was an investment, too,” he said.

They weathered a Gulf oil spill and two hurricane near misses. Before one, they rushed to get to the home to board up the windows.

“Driving down to Florida when every other car on the road is going north is a little disconcerting,” he said.

“I saw the writing on the wall,” he said. Eventually, a bad storm would hit. They sold about four years ago after 12 years of ownership.

He has been in touch with the new owners. They told him the hurricane had heavily damaged most of the roof and carried away the house’s front porch. Howard doesn’t know yet whether they will rebuild.

Which fits into a broader concern he has. “After this storm, I don’t know if there is going to be any of that kind of old Florida left around.”

Frederick Noble of Atlanta, who has faced two straight years of hurricane evacuation orders while camping at a nearby state park on extended Columbus Day weekends, sees a price for living near the tides.

“You know it is only a matter of time before something comes along and wipes it out,” he said.

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