Smaller-scale disasters play out in Florida’s small fishing villages

Joy Brown's grocery store in St. Marks was inundated with 10 feet of storm surge. [EMILY L. MAHONEY | Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau]
Joy Brown's grocery store in St. Marks was inundated with 10 feet of storm surge. [EMILY L. MAHONEY | Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau]
Published October 11 2018

ST. MARKS – When you ask Joy Brown — or "Miss Joy" to those around here — what it felt like to walk into her small grocery store after the 10-foot storm surge destroyed everything inside, a lump forms in her throat and she can't speak.

What she can tell you is what this place means to her. Brown has owned the white-painted wood store, which doubles as her house with its living quarters in the back, for 53 years. Her name is on the sign.

"My kids were raised here and it's just home," she said.

St. Marks, self-proclaimed as "America's Stone Crab Capital," has 305 people. A dozen of those residents stooped over on Thursday afternoon, squeegeeing water off the floor and picking through the remainder of Brown's inventory to see what could still be sold, like cookies protected by plastic wrappers.

Joy Brown, who declined to give her age other than that she’s “been 39 for a long time,” stands in her grocery store which doubles as her house in the back. Her refrigerators were destroyed, along with most of her inventory, and her kitchen and living room were filled with water during the storm surge.

While the stunning images of the flattened buildings and untended fires in Mexico Beach and Panama City in the wake of Hurricane Michael have captivated the country, smaller-scale disasters are playing out in Florida's small fishing and agricultural villages along the coast.

Many have their structures still standing, but the water damage from the unprecedented storm surge warped wood floors, short-circuited anything electric and left behind mildew and dead fish.

"We've had so many hurricanes but this was by far the worst," Brown said. "It brought in more water, more surge. It blew off part of the roof of the house."

State emergency officials have said Hurricane Michael's destruction across the Florida Panhandle presents unique challenges compared to a storm hitting a massive city like Miami or those in Tampa Bay. The spread-out towns in this area are like dots along the coast, separated by dense forest with few alternative roadways.

That means emergency crews must bulldoze their way to each affected area, an effort that began late Wednesday night and well into the day on Thursday.

Just down the street from Brown's home and store is St. Marks Seafood, a crabbing hub where Rick Tooke, 59, was hosing out the interior of his now-destroyed walk-in refrigerator.

On a typical morning, Tooke and his brother hop in their boats and head out of St. Marks River into the Gulf to catch stone crab, usually greeted by a mandarin orange sunrise. Then they cut the claws, take them back, and cook them in their shop to be sold wholesale for hungry diners in Apalachicola.

But not Thursday morning, when Tooke returned to find at least $15,000 worth of damage to his shop, and the dock near his boat twisted and upended by the surge.

Rick Tooke of St. Marks holds up his hand to indicate where the water line was during the storm surge at his crabbing shop, which is right along the St. Marks River leading to the Gulf.

However, Tooke, who has tan skin and the crow's feet of a man who lives life on a boat, said he's mostly just grateful and ready to get back to work.

"I'm glad I'm still alive," he said. "We're used to this, we're fishermen. We've been doing this all our lives."

Along U.S. 98, the Panhandle's coastal highway around the Gulf, one quickly loses count of the toppled trees that have bent and snapped power lines, causing blackouts for about 400,000 people. West on that road lies Panacea, another small fishing town next to Dickerson Bay.

On Tuesday, the Times/Herald reported that despite mandatory evacuations in coastal areas like Panacea, many stayed behind, including in mobile homes that are especially vulnerable to high winds and fast-moving water.

Some of those residents watched in fear as water flooded their streets and approached their doorways, then receded, sparing many homes. The storm surge, they said, was lower than expected, affecting only the homes and churches on lower ground while those only slightly higher on a slope were protected.

"If it wouldn't have turned it would've tore us up," said Francis Trumbull, 54, who lives in a mobile home in Panacea, referring to Hurricane Michael's last-minute shift westward toward Panama City. "We're just lucky."