When Pat Lowery, 71, retired from teaching at Port St. Joe High School, she stayed put in the “beautiful, sleepy little town” where nobody locked their doors and cars.
But after 46 years, Lowery is getting out.
“My house will be up for sale the minute it’s repaired,” she said, standing in line for free barbecue with her husband days after Hurricane Michael slammed the Florida Panhandle. “At our age, we can’t deal with that. We want to travel and have fun.”
She’s not alone. Residents throughout the hard-hit Forgotten Coast are struggling with the same decision: Should they muddle through the messy, interminable recovery, or leave a home that might never be the same? According to official estimates, more than 4,000 homes were destroyed, with another 16,000 damaged.
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The future of towns like hers — immortalized as the city where the state’s constitution was signed in 1838 — depends on it.
Kaye Haddock, a real estate broker with Beach Properties in Port St. Joe for 16 years, said she got her first call from a billionaire investor two days after the storm hit.
“I was standing here, looking at this place, and he called and said, ‘You’re my girl. Find me the deals,’ ” she said.
She remembered the last crash, when the market nosedived and deep-pocketed investors were the only ones buying.
Over the last decade, that slowly changed as the appeal of “Mayberry on the Beach” grew: a place with no chain restaurants, where you could drive your car onto the sugar-sand beaches and start a bonfire under the starry sky.
Right before the storm, she said, the community had started to come into its own. The town was renovating its historic theater and planning its first music festival. Most of her clients were families looking to move in full time or finally buy their dream vacation home.
Now, Haddock said, “investors are going to eat this area up.” She expects the calls to keep coming from “investor opportunists” hoping to capitalize on people like Lowery, who can’t or won’t stay here.
“They’re going to take advantage of the people that are economically disadvantaged or done,” said Matt Peevy, a real estate broker with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services. He said he expects the second wave to be people with “hurricane amnesia.”
Scott Remington, a Pensacola-based lawyer who represented Panhandle residents after the 2010 BP oil spill, said he expects a short-term burst of economic activity as the area rebuilds — followed by demand for new or reconstructed homes, especially if they are built under stronger building codes.
“What experience has told us here is that some people believe that after a storm like this, we’re not due for another storm for a long time,” he said. “A lot of people will think that’s the place to invest.”
Of course, beachfront property owners represent just one slice of the central Panhandle’s population, now scattered both east and west. Inland lie largely rural areas dotted by cotton and peanut farms. While crop losses are insured by the government, it is unlikely that the farmers’ homes will see the same kind of attention from investors. Many streets and roads are still blocked by downed trees, and affected residents are still trickling in.
With damage still fresh, experts say it’s far too early to determine how many people will abandon the area. But Remington said he does not expect a major population shift similar to the one after 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, which caused thousands to relocate from South Dade to then-underdeveloped western Broward.
“This storm didn’t go into the population centers,” he said.
One exception is Tyndall Air Force Base, an 11,000-person facility that is a central driver of the region’s economy. The base sustained heavy damage, and in a press conference Tuesday, Pentagon spokesmen said Tyndall’s future remains unknown. The entire base was evacuated, and many service personnel departed not just the Panhandle but the state itself.
“I’ve been through a hurricane and a hurricane recovery before, but not on the magnitude of this,” said Brig. Gen. John Allen, according to the Air Force Times. “You can imagine what kind of an effort lays ahead of us.”
Allen, the Air Force’s director of civil engineers, drew a comparison to Hurricane Katrina’s impact on Kessler Air Force Base in Mississippi; a complete recovery there took nearly five years.
According to the Times, Brig. Gen. Ed Thomas said the Pentagon was still evaluating what to do with displaced personnel.
“We’re going to have to make some serious decisions on which families come back to that base or not,” he said.
Haddock, the broker, thinks it’ll be more like five years before the region’s economy bounces back. She and her husband own Krazy Fish Grille, one of the most popular spots in town. Their employees scattered to Alabama and Mississippi, far from their damaged homes. The parking lot in front of the restaurant is an impromptu food kitchen, the largest in the area. Dozens of people line up in the hot sun for food — pulled pork, cornbread, cookies and Gatorade.
Peevy, the broker, is more optimistic. He pegs the economic recovery time at a year — six months if they can get enough photos of undamaged areas on the internet to lure the tourists back.
A week after the storm, heavy trucks are busy reconnecting the islands mostly filled with luxurious vacation homes. In a few days the road will look the same as it ever did, but it’s unclear when — or if — the community that serves it will. “The investors are gonna show up, and we’re gonna eat,” Haddock said.