Tiny Port St. Joe faces Hurricane Michael's wrath

The Gulf County town faces high winds and storm surge as the Category 4 storm approaches.

The edge of Port St. Joe, which sits on the Gulf of Mexico in the path of Hurricane Michael, on Wednesday morning. [Zachary T. Sampson | Florida Beach Insider photo]
The edge of Port St. Joe, which sits on the Gulf of Mexico in the path of Hurricane Michael, on Wednesday morning. [Zachary T. Sampson | Florida Beach Insider photo]

PORT ST. JOE — On the edge of this small town, which sits west of Apalachicola in Gulf County, straight in Hurricane Michael’s path, police are making frequent passes

The storm surge here could reach 13 feet, according to forecasts.

Wind is already all you can hear downtown. Rain is pelting sideways and everything — the sky, the road, the water — is gray.

There are still several boats in the marina at Port St. Joe, protected by a short hook of land.

Rex McCormick, 25, and Alyssa Graziano, 23, came down to the marina to see the edge of Hurricane Michael. He said it’s not his first storm, won’t be his last. It’s her first. "If you ain’t already out, you ain’t going nowhere," he said.

"Leaving’s kind of easier said than done" when you have pets and family here, Graziano said. "The water already came in a whole lot." She pointed to a concrete landing about 15 feet offshore. Normally you can fish there, she said. Now it’s underwater.

Gusts are getting stiffer, enough to rock vehicles.

Bill Kennedy, redevelopment director for Port St. Joe, was checking out some short-term rental cottages he owns. The water is already up to the top of the dock. "It’s about a foot above what I’d call a very high tide."

Several trucks have approached the area, the drivers seeming to scope out the shore before turning around. Kennedy actually got out. "This is the first time in the history of storm predictions they’ve underestimated what a storm is going to do. It’s crazy."

Kennedy lives on the water, about 6 feet above sea level, and he expects his house to be inundated. He plans to bunker down in the local high school. "It’s going to be okay. We’re going to wake up the next day cutting sheetrock and digging out insulation and we’ll move forward."

Still, he got choked up thinking about the damage and what his family might lose. They packed away some photographs. Port St. Joe is an old paper mill town, said Kennedy, 58. It just "discovered tourism extensively about 10 years ago," he said.

The gusts here are already high enough to cause him to lose balance and shuffle his feet. "We just hope we can survive this catastrophic event," Kennedy said. "It’s never happened before."

Just after Kennedy left, Keith Nixon, 55, pulled up in a pickup. He’s lived here since 1972 and said he never evacuates. But now, just hours before Hurricane Michael comes ashore, he’s considering it. "I’m kind of nervous," he said. "It’s going to blow."

As of now, he plans to ride it out at his house, which he said is about a block from the water. "That’s the only place I know to hunker down in," Nixon said.

This article was originally published in the Tampa Bay Times on Oct. 10, 2018.