When Hurricane Michael made landfall last October, it wreaked havoc throughout the Florida Panhandle. Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration upgraded the storm to a category 5 at landfall, not a category 4 as previously believed. This new information didn’t come as a surprise to anyone living in the affected areas.
As summer vacation season beginsto get underway, the AJC checks in with those communities hardest hit to see what visitors can expect this year.
Panama City Beach
The effects of Michael’s wrath are less evident in Panama City Beach than in other beach communities along the Gulf. The western side of Bay County wasn’t hit as hard as the eastern side so recovery was quicker and things appear back to normal. Schooners, the longstanding beach bar at the easternmost end of the beach, still fires off its canon every evening at sunset. Longtime PCB favorites such as Fun-Land Arcade and Thomas’ Donut and Snack Shop still draw beachgoers across Front Beach Road as they have for generations. Pier Park, a major shopping, dining and entertainment complex across from the 1,500-foot Russell-Fields Pier (more commonly called “City Pier”) in the heart of Panama City Beach is fully open, including the SkyWheel, one of the newer attractions. Similar to SkyView Atlanta, the giant Ferris wheel with glass-enclosed pods offers views of the Gulf. Captain Anderson’s is still serving just-off-the-boat seafood next to its marina on Grand Lagoon, and beachfront accommodations such as the 30-story Tidewater Beach Resort are open for business.
Once you drive across the Hathaway Bridge into Panama City proper, though, things are much different. Debris haulers are still making a healthy living here. The old tree canopy that once shaded this historic port city on St. Andrews Bay is all but gone and blue roof tarps are prevalent. Many locals feel they’ve been forgotten by relief agencies and the media.
“Hurricane fatigue,” is how Dan Rowe, president/CEO of Visit Panama City Beach, the tourist development council for Bay County, describes it. “It’s understandable but frustrating. Michael happened on the heels of Hurricane Florence and Maria the year before. Then came the California wildfires and the mid-term elections. We fell out of the news cycle.”
Located 25 miles southeast of Panama City, Mexico Beach took the brunt of Hurricane Michael’s landfall. The town was leveled by a nearly 20-foot storm surge and winds topping 160 mph. There were eight restaurants in town before Michael, but only two are back in business: Mango Marley’s and Crazy Beach Pizza, as well as a coffee shop, Caribbean Coffee.
All four hotels in town were destroyed but plan on rebuilding, including the beloved El Governor, which has begun reconstruction. Vacation rentals are available, although not directly on the beach because the water and sewer lines have yet to be restored on that side of the highway.
“Our marketing focus right now is on people who already know Mexico Beach well, people who have been here before and have a piece of it in them,” said Kimberly Shoaf, president of the Mexico Beach Community Development Council, whose office is in a trailer that houses the temporary visitors center. “A newcomer would be in shell shock.”
Indeed, the town still looks like an apocalyptic landscape in many spots, but it’s also buzzing with activity, and a positive attitude permeates the atmosphere. Several locals were seen sporting #mexicobeachstrong T-shirts as they went about their business rebuilding their community.
Cape San Blas
The tip of St. Joseph Peninsula, a narrow arm of land jutting out from the Panhandle more commonly called Cape San Blas, was severed by the storm making it an island. Half of T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park is inaccessible due to the cut, including the campground and cabins, but the southern portion is open as a day-use area, as is the boat ramp and 10 miles of dog-friendly beach. Visitors can stay at Cape San Blas Inn, a seven-room bed-and-breakfast on St. Joseph Bay with easy beach access. The cape has limited dining options. Most people drive into Port St. Joe for dining, but Skully’s Low Country Boil on the cape reopened in March serving three items: gumbo, boiled shrimp and lowcountry boil.
Port St. Joe
Most businesses in Port St. Joe on St. Joseph Bay have reopened or are in the process of rebuilding. The Port Inn, the major hotel in town, was rebuilding at press time and plans to reopen by summer, when exactly has yet to be determined. But its pet-friendly Port Cottages behind the hotel are already operational. The Indian Pass Raw Bar, an institution in these parts where patrons serve themselves beer on the honor system, plans to reopen in June, but its sister location, Indian Pass Uptown, is up and running. The historic Cape San Blas Lighthouse, relocated to Port St. Joe a few years ago, re-opened in March.
IF YOU GO
Panama City Beach Visitor. 17001 Panama City Beach Pkwy., Panama City Beach. 800-722-3224, www.visitpanamacitybeach.com.
Tidewater Beach Resort. $195 and up. 16819 Front Beach Road, Panama City Beach. 850-636-8000, www.wyndhamvacationrentals.com.
Captain Anderson’s. $15.95 and up. 5551 N. Lagoon Drive, Panama City Beach. 850-234-2225, www.captandersons.com.
Thomas’ Donuts and Snack Shop. Sandwiches $4.99 and up. 19208 Front Beach Road, Panama City Beach. 850-234-8039, www.thomasdonutandsnackshop.com.
Mexico Beach Welcome Center. 102 Canal Pkwy., Mexico Beach. 888-723-2546, www.mexicobeach.com.
Gulf County Visitor Center. 150 Captain Fred’s Place, Port St. Joe. 850-229-7800, www.visitgulf.com
Skully’s Low Country Boil. $8 and up. 5544 Cape San Blas Road, Port St. Joe. 850-227-7011.
Cape San Blas Inn. $200 and up. 4950 Cape San Blas Road, Port St. Joe. 850-229-7070, www.capesanblasinn.com.
Port Cottages. $209 and up. 314 Cecil G. Costin Sr. Blvd., Port St. Joe. 850-229-7678, http://portcottages.com/.
Indian Pass Uptown. $6.75 and up. 411 Reid Ave., Port St. Joe. 850-899-9001, http://www.indianpassrawbaruptown.com/.