Trapped by Idalia, a Florida fishing village hopes to maintain its charm

HORSEHOW BEACH, Florida (AP) — Known as “Florida’s Last Frontier,” this remote coastal enclave took a lot of blow from Hurricane Adalia when it hit the state’s west coast as a Category 3 storm last week.

The damage left by the fishing village of Horseshoe Beach reveals a divide between the haves and the have-nots, as cash-strapped residents may be forced to leave this quaint, remote community rivaled by few others along the Florida coast.

And as emergency teams continue to work to restore electricity and provide temporary housing, local residents worry that those unable to afford insurance will struggle to rebuild homes that must comply with modern and more expensive building codes. Longtime residents share varying degrees of optimism that magic – and business – will return to the sleepy town of fewer than 200 people.

“We have all of old Florida here, and today it feels like it’s been taken away,” said Tammy Bryan, song director at First Baptist Church.

Horseshoe Beach had largely escaped the worst of the previous storms to hit the state, but Idealia was pushed ashore with 200-kilometer-per-hour winds and storm surges that flattened some homes and knocked others off their foundations and slammed into canals.

When asked at a news conference Sunday if climate change was to blame for the ferocity of Hurricane Idalia, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said other, more powerful hurricanes hit the state decades ago. Climate scientists said Gulf waters warming due to climate change helped Idalia’s activity rapidly intensify.

“The idea that hurricanes are something new is just wrong,” said DeSantis, a candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. “The idea that somehow, if we adopt very left-wing policies at the federal level, we will somehow not have hurricanes is just a lie.”

Most residents of Horseshoe Beach can’t afford insurance, according to Jimmy Butler, a realtor who has worked in the town since 2000. He predicted that the rubble might be cleared in a couple of months, but it would take years to return to normal.

Butler said Idalia is “the worst thing” Horseshoe Beach has ever encountered.

Tina Brotherton, 88, fears the hurricane will accelerate changes that began with the so-called storm of the century in 1993, an unnamed, out-of-season hurricane in March that battered the Florida Panhandle. A resident of Horseshoe Beach since 1978, she lost her dock and café next door in that disaster and had to replace the floors and beds at Tina`s Dockside Inn.

And now the hotel I’ve owned for 52 years has been destroyed in the aftermath of Adalia. So is her home. It had no flood insurance, as its low buildings made insurance prohibitively expensive.

Modern building codes require homes to be raised to certain heights to protect against storm surges, and raising a home can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Brotherton said that brought in a “different kind of people” with “more money” and more expensive homes.

“It’s not a fishing village anymore,” she said as she searched the wreckage for a chair that belonged to her mother. “We’re full of golf carts, ATVs, and airboats.”

Brotherton has no intention of leaving the community and plans to stay close to it, living with her son about 5 miles (8 km) inland.

Tourism in Horseshoe Beach is fueled by the more adventurous type of visitor, who are attracted by its natural beauty rather than the massive commercial developments found in many other tropical destinations. Fishing and shrimping charters are an economic engine, and many of the residents are working class people who live in modest trailers or retirees in quiet homes.

Stephanie Foley, a 41-year-old teacher whose husband and brother hope to take over her father’s crabbing business, described Horseshoe Beach as a close-knit community where people don’t feel like they have to close their doors.

“I feel very safe here,” Foley said. “And we’re in heaven for many.” “We’re up–we can go fishing any time we want.”

But she also fears that the features that make the place so special are disappearing, with the prohibitive cost of rebuilding for many.

“Slowly, the laws around all of that made it more difficult to live on the water,” Foley said. “I think the way of life that we hold dear will be lost.”

Brent Woodard, 34-year-old owner of Reel Native Fishing Charters in Horseshoe Beach, said locals thought it was only a matter of time before the area got hit — hurricanes can only be avoided for so long in Florida.

Now his biggest concern is ensuring that the fishing industry gets back up and running quickly. Storms can damage flats where fishermen and crabs live, tearing up grass where fish hide, feed and spawn.

Most locals live paycheck to paycheck, Woodard said, and he wonders how many lots will come up for sale.

Fishing “pays the bills”, he said, but “let’s be honest, you don’t get to be a millionaire by going out and catching blue crab. You don’t get to get a millionaire by going out and buying oysters or being a fishing guide.”

“They’re hard-working people,” said Jimmy Patronis, Florida’s chief financial officer. Mother Nature will wipe them off the map and they’ll say, ‘You know what? Maybe this is a signal for us to spend our money.”

Timmy Futch, 63, who owns Florida’s Cracker Shrimp & Bite Company with his wife, has never been hit by a hurricane more powerful than a low-level Category 1 hurricane. But he said he’s noticed the storms are getting “bigger” and more powerful. “Nastier.”

While Idalia pumped 3 feet (about one meter) of water into its store, the structure remained intact. Fortunately, the couple installed waist-high electrical sockets in anticipation of possible flooding. However, they will have to repaint and rehabilitate the place.

The docks were destroyed, but he saved both boats by hauling them 85 miles (140 km) before the storm arrived, driving 14 hours one way while also towing a friend’s boat.

Fuchs, a fourth-generation resident and longtime shrimp fisherman, boat captain and owner, hopes to reopen his business in a month and is confident the tourists will return.

“When the fish start to bite, it doesn’t matter what happened, after six or eight months,” he said. “They will come and catch some fish for them.”

“We were born in Florida, and it’s like a blizzard for someone up north. We just hunker down,” Futch said. “I think we’re pretty hard on quitting.”

— Associated Press writers Daniel Kozinn, Michael Schneider, and Brendan Farrington contributed to this report.

TOP PHOTO: In this drone image, home debris washed away their plots choking a channel in the middle of homes on stilts, in Horseshoe Beach, Florida, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, one day after the storm passed. Hurricane Adalia. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, file)

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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