Apalachicola waits for Hurricane Michael
'Until the water comes up, we’re just waiting. There’s not much else we can do.'
APALACHICOLA — Inside the Apalachicola Ice Company, a bar that was once an outboard motor shop in an old Panhandle city where many buildings were something else before, there is a small, irregular mark scratched into a dark wood post along the wall.
The mark signifies where the water reached during Hurricane Dennis in 2005, said co-owner James Frost, though that was long before he opened for business. The flood was about 2 feet high, but longtime residents here tend to measure storm surges in body parts rather than inches. Dennis brought water up to the knee, or navel, depending on who is talking and where they were. And it made landfall far away, near the Alabama border.
Frost sat with a few others on the sidewalk outside the bar late Tuesday staring at the Apalachicola River, hoping the water only reaches that height Wednesday when Hurricane Michael bears down on Florida’s Big Bend region.
"As long as it doesn’t go over the bar top, I should be fine," he said. "Until the water comes up, we’re just waiting. There’s not much else we can do."
Apalachicola is nestled on a point of the Panhandle, bordering Apalachicola Bay, the anticipated epicenter for Hurricane Michael’s stronger east side. It could land as a Category 3, or even 4, with winds above 120 mph and a storm surge of 8 to 12 feet. The storm came up fast, popping up on forecasts just over the weekend.
Many residents were still preparing in historic downtown Tuesday about 5 p.m., stacking sandbags by the doors of low brick and clapboard buildings. Storefronts and offices proudly display their heritage here: The Apalachicola Times, est. 1885, The Gibson Inn, est. 1907, and the city itself, est. 1831, marked by an anchor entwined with a cross in its seal.
The residents, too, are proud of their hometown — at least the ones who stayed.
"We’ve been through this before," said Frost, 36. "We’ve got charter captains, we’ve got shrimpers, we’ve got people who are commercial fisherman. That kind of experience? We know it’s going to be bad."
His fiance, Erin Rodgers, said she and Frost did not plan to open Tuesday but wouldn’t turn away anyone who stopped by the bar on Water Street.
"Lots of hardworking people, a good mix of very low-income to lots of disposable income to everything in between," she said. "So everyone is going to be affected equally. I’ve seen a lot of people who aren’t going to leave."
David Heinke, a 56-year-old fishing guide, remembers kayaking through the Apalachicola Ice Company building during Hurricane Dennis, before the bar was there.
"A lot of people are staying so they can help each other after the storm," he said, sitting with Frost and Rodgers as they sipped beers. "If you leave, you almost feel like you’re leaving people."
The river and upper bay, he said, have marsh and hardwood swamp that residents hope will suck up some of the storm surge. Heinke pointed across the street to a red mark on the wall of a building along the riverfront. That, he said, is about 14 feet — the height new construction has to be above the ground. But most of downtown is old, one- or two-stories, still vulnerable to the storm.
Preparation was nevertheless methodical. Wilhelmina Stanton, 35, came from West Palm Beach to help her mother hunker down in her hometown. She recalled the frenzied evacuation before Hurricane Irma last year across Florida and said the scene in the Panhandle was much calmer.
"This was the most peaceful hurricane preparation I’ve ever seen in my life," she said. Stanton was even able to find wood and gas Tuesday, just one day before Hurricane Michael’s predicted landfall.
Around the corner, Lake Smith, 45, stacked sandbags three high outside the Bowery Station ("Beer, wine and fresh sarcasm served daily"). Smith lives further east on the Big Bend Scenic Byway, in the town of Carrabelle, where he expected at least a few feet of water from the storm surge. In Apalachicola, he said, it could be even worse.
"We’re going to see if it comes in on high tide," Smith said.
A golf cart carrying a few beer-toting residents passed, and Smith’s girlfriend, Shari Teters, waved. "You guys party hard," she shouted.
A man and his Husky, Summer, strolled along the sidewalk. Tim Massaria, 42, said he never planned to be in Apalachicola for Hurricane Michael. He was sailing his 37-foot Seafarer boat, Northaven, from Rockport, Texas, to Key West when he became wary of the forecast over the weekend. He came to Big Bend, and his friends forced him to leave the boat in Carrabelle.
"They had to pry me away from it," Massaria said. People in Apalachicola seemed ready for the storm, he said, but he "thinks it’s going to hurt."
"I figure I ain’t going to have a boat if it happens," Massaria said. "I’ll get a backpack and hike to Key West."
Across the street, Tommy Ward was leaving Buddy Ward & Sons Seafood Market and Shrimp House. Tuesday was his 57th birthday, but the co-owner was instead preparing for the storm. Most people who work on the water have stored their boats up the river, he said, in anticipation of the wind and surge.
"Hell with the birthday," Ward said of Hurricane Michael. "He’s ruining my livelihood."
Staff writers Douglas R. Clifford and Laura Reiley contributed to this report. This article originally appeared in the Tampa Bay Times on Oct. 9, 2018.