Fla. Panhandle: It's Always Something

Despite two shark attacks on the Florida Panhandle, fearless tourists visit Panama City Beach and the Jaws sundry shop.
Despite two shark attacks on the Florida Panhandle, fearless tourists visit Panama City Beach and the Jaws sundry shop. (Photos By Steve Hendrix -- The Washington Post)
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 31, 2005

On one hand, there's nothing surprising about the heaps of rubble, the semi-shattered condominiums and the flattened sand dunes to be found on Florida's Pensacola Beach 12 days after Hurricane Dennis barreled through.

On the other hand, there is this: Dennis didn't do it.

"Actually, most of this is leftover from Ivan," says Jimmy Wiltcher, 45, the manager of Peg Leg Pete's, a capacious oyster bar across the street from the beach. He stands now in the parking lot, which is once again frosted in white sand, surveying the variable devastation that surrounds the restaurant: furrows of tumbled concrete blocks, apartments and hotels stripped to the Tyvek, timber ribs where proper roofs used to be. A good part of the wreckage, he says, dates back to last year's cataclysmic hurricane.

"Don't get me wrong, Dennis was no little storm," Wiltcher says. "But Ivan was perfect. It was slow moving, it hit at high tide and it slammed right into us. The sand was up to the stop signs after Ivan."

Such is life on the beleaguered Florida Panhandle, where locals have been turned into aficionados of disaster by serial meteorological muggings and a recent brace of grisly shark attacks. Dennis was bad, but not as bad as Ivan 10 months before it, which was not as bad as Opal back in 1995. The two shark attacks off Panhandle beaches last month were horrifying, but they haven't deterred beachgoers from going into the water -- or, at least, a little way into the water.

In all, after a string of misfortunes that would have left Job shaking his head, a weekend driving tour of the region in late July reveals a tourist scene that's remarkably vibrant. Most beaches have reopened, with crowds climbing back toward capacity. In Panama City Beach on a Saturday night, thick traffic creeps along the Miracle Mile strip of highrise hotels and condos past one neon "No Vacancy" sign after another. At Destin, the beaches in front of the unbroken rank of condominium towers are crowded by midmorning. Up and down the Gulf of Mexico coast, people are going about their vacations in spite of the occasional surf-emptying sight of a dorsal fin, the washed-away dunes and the debris piled along every beach and highway.

"I have a friend who likes to say, 'It's still beautiful here, you just have to know where to look,' " says Wiltcher, nodding at the stunning green water. "If you're looking toward the gulf, it's spectacular. If you look the other way, it's pretty beat up."

Pensacola Beach, on Santa Rosa Island, is one of the most beat up after Dennis and remained closed to the public for nearly two weeks after the July 10 storm. Street signs are twisted like pipe cleaners and it seems as if nearly every light pole is attended by its own flashing utility truck. Highway 399, which usually connects Pensacola Beach to Navarre Beach to the east, just reopened July 1 after damage from Ivan was repaired; nine days later, Dennis closed it again.

"Looks like we'll be taking the long way around again," says Tom Valente, a manager at the Hilton Garden Inn. His hotel was one of only five to survive Ivan (seven others didn't), but today is open only to recovery workers. (Officials blew the all clear two days later on July 24, opening the island to the general public. The Hilton began accepting rerservations two days later.)

Head east along U.S. Route 98, the coastal highway, and signs of a big blow are everywhere -- among peeled roofs, tattered awnings and ubiquitous piles of mattresses, insulation and carpet. Access to this stretch of the Gulf Island National Seashore is limited because of road closures, debris and erosion from both Ivan and Dennis.

But a little farther along the Emerald Coast, the cleanup seems to have progressed much further. By the time you reach Fort Walton Beach, 40 miles from Pensacola, things are more lively. The hotels are open and a steady flow of cars is pouring over the bridge onto Okaloosa Island. At the Old Bay Steamer, a much recommended seafood house, the line to get a table spills out of the front door, a welcome sign of normality in Fort Walton.

Late in the afternoon, the beach is speckled with groups enjoying the last of a sunny day as the temperature finally edges below sweltering. Kids on body boards are making the most of the moderate surf; grunts, thumps and cheers erupt steadily from several volleyball games.

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