High ground acts as a bridge to the rest of the world
Isolated by Hurricane Michael, stranded residents head to impromptu town squares to talk to friends and relatives or ask for help.
PORT ST. JOE — Bridges span voids. Traditionally, the gaps are physical barriers, be it rivers, railroads or ravines.
After Hurricane Michael, the bridges near Mexico Beach have become portals of sorts, the only place where communication is possible with the outside world.
That’s because after the Category 4 storm wiped out power and cellular coverage across a wide swath of the Panhandle, the only whiff of a signal is atop those bridges.
So the hopeful service-seekers flock here, 10 to 20 at a time, parking in the narrow shoulders of Bay and Gulf county bridges, jockeying for space near the crest, phones in hand and arms extended, desperate for every inch of elevation. Even standing in their truck beds.
The lucky ones achieve a few bars of 4G LTE, more than enough to make calls and send texts to loved ones. That’s also enough to read the news, or, if need be, send the news. The promise of cell service drew reporters each afternoon hoping to transmit images and stories to their newsrooms.
"This is the closest connection to the rest of the world," said Sheron Metts, sitting in her car atop the George G. Tapper Bridge just north of Port St. Joe on U.S. 98.
Metts and her husband, Dewey Metts, 53, live in Beacon Hill, which is just south of Mexico Beach and totally wiped out. They were committed to riding out Michael when it was forecast to make landfall as a Category 1 or 2. They reconsidered once it rapidly intensified into a Category 3 and then a 4, but by then it was too late. So the couple, their daughter and her husband hunkered down to weather one of the most powerful hurricane landfalls in recorded U.S. history.
When they emerged, their house, new construction at only three years old, was one of the only structures on their block still standing, though it was completely ruined. They were lucky to survive.
They came to the bridge Friday afternoon to broadcast to friends or family for the first time that they were safe.
"Just trying to reach one or two that know others to get the word out there," Sheron Metts said. Their social network would inform the rest.
Stumbling upon cell service is as easy as powering on a mobile phone, driving around and waiting for the notifications that indicate you are in range.
Sheron Metts said as soon as they ascended the bridge, her phone lit up with messages.
"It was ridiculous, I didn’t know I knew that many people," she joked.
Word of the hot spots spreads the old-fashioned way: one person might tell a Florida Highway Patrol trooper, who might tell a passing driver, who might tell another.
Soon dozens gather, coming and going from the makeshift highway rest stop, each with their own storm story.
Tony Whitfield paused at the top of the Tapper Bridge on Friday to check his phone.
"This is it," he said. "There is nowhere else" to communicate.
He had ridden out Hurricane Michael in Gulfport, Miss., and completed a 10-hour drive to check on his bar and two restaurants in Port St. Joe. One used to be the Lookout Lounge, he said.
The Shipwreck Raw stands but suffered damage. Same with the Paradise Craft House and Grill.
"Everything inside it looks like somebody just put it in a blender," Whitfield said.
He hoped, if he could manage to get gas or electricity, to open one of his kitchens. Storms stop cell service, but not metabolisms.
"We’ve got to feed the damn relief workers," he said. "And the people who are still here."
Joe Rudzinskas, 44, had come from Boca Raton to help his in-laws who live in Mexico Beach. Remarkably, the house survived, but fallen trees damaged the roof. Rudzinskas took a break from the work to call his wife, who had stayed behind, and update her on her parents’ condition.
"I just think it’s odd 40 feet makes a difference," he said atop the bridge. "No signal at the bottom of the bridge."
Across the bridge from Rudzinskas sat Tracie Nelson, 60, of St. Joe Beach in a car full of salvaged belongings from family members’ homes. She’s a nurse and wife of Gulf County’s Emergency Management Director Marshall Nelson.
She had planned to evacuate to Chipley after doing one last check on her patients before the storm hit. But she ran out of time, and instead stayed with her sister near Port. St. Joe. Her husband spent the storm at the county’s emergency operations center.
Nelson’s modular home survived, but the insurance company may declare it a loss if the insulation and duct work below it got wet. It did better than her grown sons’ places, though, both of which were destroyed. That meant the kids were moving back home.
"We’re going to have all the kids back under one roof again," she said her husband told her. "Life don’t get any better than that."
The stuff that was lost, she said, is just that. Stuff. The people are what matter, she said while fiddling with her flip phone.
"If you’re calling family and they’re okay," she said, "you have a lot of be grateful for."
This article was originally published in the Tampa Bay Times on Oct. 15, 2018.