After the Storm
Ala./Fla. Border: Sifting Through the White Sand
Sunday, November 21, 2004
A lively bar on Okaloosa Island, Fla., serves cocktails named after tropical breezes, bayous and randy activities on the beach. But the bartenders will never mix up a Hurricane Ivan.
"We don't want to have that association with something so bad," says Steven LeBlanc, general manager of Howl at the Moon nightclub. "We'd rather just forget Ivan and move on."
Along Florida's Panhandle, the Emerald Coast -- comprising Fort Walton Beach, Okaloosa and Destin -- is already well on its way toward full recovery. Farther west, though, Pensacola and the Alabama Gulf Shores region are still struggling with the havoc wreaked by the downpour of water, sand and debris that threatened to swallow them whole.
"We came back very quickly," says LeBlanc. "When one area takes a hit, tourism increases in the other areas. This coming spring, I think people are going to be looking at Fort Walton and Destin."
Barely three months after Ivan stormed through this tropical arm of Florida, whipping up its white sands and frothing its clear blue waters, the Emerald Coast towns are running within a whisker of normalcy. The eastern Panhandle region, popular with families and MTV spring breakers alike, has 18,000 guest rooms, of which 50 percent are currently operating; the other half should open by early February, at the latest. Ninety percent of restaurants are serving visitors, and all of the golf courses and public beaches on the Gulf of Mexico are open. Even the 1,200-foot-long wooden fishing pier, which Hurricane Opal crumbled to pieces nearly a decade ago, survived the bashing.
"This was no Opal, thank God," says Nancy Hussong of the Emerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, who also rode out that 1995 storm. "We didn't have the same amount of damage. We had a lot of blown roofs and trees, but the permanent destruction was nothing like what we saw before."
In early November, the damage here was just a tiny bruise on the landscape -- a cluster of beached and battered boats behind a cocktail lounge, a Nintendo console peeking from the sand, an unhinged hotel sign resting wrong-side-up in a parking lot. At the Four Points by Sheraton, which sits on the gulf, the beachside pool and first-level rooms were temporarily closed due to the storm surge. But the courtyard pool and second-floor rooms were pristine, and only a small montage of Ivan photos in the lobby served as a reminder of what had been. At the hotel next door, though, were shattered windows, three-walled guestrooms and disgorged mattresses, coffee pots and lamps -- but that was due to the one-two punch of Ivan and the demolition phase of a new condo project.
"The area looks quite good," says Genifer McVicar, who was visiting from England and was the sole swimmer in the Sheraton's pool. "You can tell something happened here, but it doesn't seem to be encroaching too much."
The same cannot be said of Pensacola, about 40 miles to the west. Struck by the edge of Ivan's eye, this beach haven is still a major relief-work-in-progress. Despite a billboard that reads "Ivan Can't Bring Us Down. Stand Strong Pensacola," the area is still quivering from the hurricane, with thousands still homeless and hundreds of homes and buildings reduced to toothpicks.
On Pensacola Beach, the Core -- a tourist hub with restaurants, hotels, family activities and a long strand of beach -- is just starting to brush off its thick coating of white sand (it's 60 percent open). Flounder's, which fed relief workers with a free buffet of grade-A seafood, is cooking up fresh grouper, mixing cocktails and lining up bands to jam by the shore. Casino Beach is slowly drawing beachgoers, who marvel at the mounds of rare shells washed up from the storm. Yet, of the island's eight miles of public beach, only a half-mile is currently accessible. The rest is either sitting in people's living rooms or is piled up curbside, awaiting sifting before it can be restored to its proper place.
"We have more beach now," says Mike Norman, a 20-year-old resident who was filling a plastic Gap bag with shells. "I see Pensacola being the same [after rebuilding], but it's not ready for tourists yet. Maybe in the spring."
The area is certainly not idle. Hotels, swarming with construction workers, are taking advantage of their closed doors to not just fix Ivan-related damage but also refurbish their properties. Some are banking on January or February reopening dates, and 700 of the 1,250 hotel rooms on Pensacola Beach should be booking guests by spring. (By comparison, about 85 percent of hotels are open in Pensacola proper, and 95 percent of its restaurants.) But with aid workers and the displaced still being housed at hotels, and a number of places condemned and scheduled to be razed, finding accommodations could be a challenge. To be sure, a tourism official from adjacent Perdido Key recommended looking in Mobile, Ala.: "It's only an hour away."