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.
"I expected it to be lot worse than it is," said Keith Brooks, a neurosurgical nurse from Birmingham, Ala., here for a week with his wife and two children. Their condominium, the Sea Spray, had called after Dennis hit to warn them off, only to call back a few days later with word that the facility would be open after all. Aside from a collapsed set of steps over the sand dune and balky cable in one bedroom, Brooks has noticed little amiss.
"The hurricane's over. That doesn't worry us so much as the sharks," he says, standing ankle-deep in the surf watching his stocky 8-year-old son happily tumble in the waves 20 feet away. "My boy's robust. He'd be a good meal."
Brooks's wife, Amy, keeps even closer watch. They won't let their children swim more than a few yards off the beach. And when they're in the water, Amy stands sentry at the surfline.
It's one of the most noticeable things about Panhandle beaches these days, how closely everyone hugs the shore. Of the hundreds of people in the water at Fort Walton Beach, about half have ventured out to the shallow water of a sandbar, but only a handful have gone deeper than their knees. Those few in the deepest water stand out. "Look at them out there," says Bryan Murphy, a local veterinarian having a picnic supper with his wife, Debbie. "We know this is prime time for sharks, right before sunset. They're waist-deep in the darker waters, the worst place."
Sharks are the talk of the beach. That evening at the end of the public fishing pier, a young woman landed a baby sand shark and a crowd gathered to see the little villain. Several talked of being on the beach earlier in the day when a Navy helicopter came flying low over the water, reportedly trying to shoo a lurking bull shark on its way.
"People are a little spooked, no doubt about it," says Tommy Thillet, a lifeguard at Destin, the next beach town east of Fort Walton.
Destin, too, feels crowded and nearly normal. There's a 30-minute wait to get into the Big Kahuna, an enormous and fanciful water park on the main road. Andrew Pangle, a manager, says the park usually sees a bump in business in the days after a hurricane as people wait for the surf to clear of silt and seaweed. Sandpiper Cove, a massive condominium complex on Gulfshore Drive, remains all but buried under a blizzard of white sand. But most of the surrounding houses sport green "Inspected" stickers on their mailboxes, meaning city officials have dubbed them free of structural damage.
On the beach, Thillet surveys a crowd that he reckons is nearly typical for a July weekend. He gets dozens of questions a day about sharks, he says. It hasn't helped that the Discovery Channel has been running a breathless series on shark attacks all week. That night's episode, in fact, is "Predators in the Panhandle," a quickly produced report on the two recent attacks, one that took off a boy's leg at Cape San Blas and another that killed a 14-year-old girl just a few miles from where Thillet sits in his lifeguard tower.
"It's been crazy," he says. "A few days ago there was a manatee swimming over near the Crabtrap [restaurant] and we got a couple of guys running up and down the beach screaming, 'Shark! Shark!' We had to come along behind them, calming folks down."
But the lifeguards themselves will not hesitate to clear the water if they receive a report of a suspicious marine animal. Earlier in the morning, someone spotted a menacing shadow from the upper floors of a condominium building and got word to lifeguard Felix Romero. As a precaution, he whistled everyone out of the water for a 15-minute respite.
"I'd seen some dolphins in the area and that's probably what it was," Romero says. "But we don't take chances. People come out real quick when I blow the whistle."
Both lifeguards downplay the danger. Both say they swim every day, kayak frequently and have seen hundreds of sharks -- and even touched a few of them. The attacks are flukes, they say.
Ronnie Mapes agrees. He's manned the Sky Pirates Parasailing tent on Miramar Beach for 12 years, just a quarter-mile from where the fatal attack occurred on June 25. Many of his customers return from their flights amazed at the number of big creatures they see swimming among the swimmers. Business has picked back up after the attack, "but not many of them want to be dipped anymore," he says, referring to the practice of lowering parasailers into the water like teabags.
Continuing east along the beach at Seaside, the famous urbanist planned community, the parking lots are full of high-end SUVs from around the Southeast. At the pastel village ice cream shop, Cheira Belguellaoui and Sophie Romeuf eat cones at an outdoor table.
"It's a bit of a bummer not to be able to swim out as far as I'd like," says Belguellaoui. She's a water lover from the South of France who's working on her doctorate in film studies at Florida State University. "It is still very beautiful here, though."
Like most of this coastline, the beach at Seaside has been profoundly eroded by storm seasons that have turned the Panhandle into a Weather Channel highlights reel. Several sets of wooden steps from the 20-foot-high bluffs lie piled on the beach. A steep ramp of sand has been bulldozed into place to give bathers a way down. A chair attendant points out where the sand replenishment built up after Ivan was washed blithely away by Dennis. In some patches, the Panhandle's signature sugar white sand has been stripped down to brown mud.
Panama City feels perhaps the most fully recovered of this necklace of beach towns along the gulf. It's the biggest, and the busiest, with miles of beach and one new high-rise condo after another rising up in a wall along the sea.
On Thomas Avenue, Malcolm Bolden is happily sticking his daughter into the mouth of a Great White. The massive, toothy mockup of a shark head is the entrance to Jaws, a cavernous sundry shop. Bolden and his family, just in from Birmingham, Ala., have stopped to buy a couple of new bathing suits before heading to beach. "We have mixed feelings about swimming" after the shark attacks, he said. "We'll go in, but we'll have it in mind."
On the main drag, the traffic builds with the muffler roars and the Harley rumbles that mark Saturday night in beach towns everywhere. There's still plenty of daylight, but down by the County Pier, a spleen-shivering clap of thunder calls an abrupt end to the day on the beach.
"Okay, that's it," said Amanda Robertson of Nashville as the first sluggish drops of rain drill little pits in the sand. She and her husband gather up towels and flip-flops and assign loads to kids still wet from the surf. There's something almost reassuring -- at a time when the weather goes berserk a bit too often around here -- about an ordinary summer squall.
"I can handle thunderstorms," says Robertson. "That's just part of being at the beach. We'll be back out in the morning."