This coastal arc across Florida's "Big Bend," where the panhandle meets the peninsula, today began a ritual all too familiar in this Year of the Hurricane.
As Kate, latest of this season's Gulf tempests, sputtered into a tropical storm, such towns as Panama City, Mexico Beach, Port St. Joe and Apalachicola again were filled with sounds of brooms sweeping glass and buzz saws slicing through fallen trees.
The 200 miles of Florida coastline from Fort Walton Beach to Apalachicola, nearly deserted after an evacuation Thursday when Kate roared ashore, came to life today.
More than 100,000 people were evacuated from 10 Florida counties starting Wednesday, and officials estimated that 75 percent to 90 percent of those ordered to leave did so. Residents of four counties were allowed to return home today, but nighttime curfews were ordered in Leon County, which includes the capital city of Tallahassee, and Jackson County, which borders Georgia and Alabama.
Homeowners returned to survey damage, National Guard troops arrived to keep out looters, telephone-repair crews busily replaced lines and television crews scoured for interviews. Townsfolk pulled together after some towns had literally been ripped apart.
A reporter traveling this coastal highway found it difficult to distinguish between destruction wrought by Kate's 100-mph winds and the havoc of hurricanes past. There are the eroded beach, oak trees snapped like matchbooks and beach houses with collapsed porches.
At Panama City, destruction in Kate's wake did not seem as severe as that from Elena, which assaulted this coast on Labor Day weekend. On the drive east, the damage became more apparent.
At Mexico Beach, closer to where Kate's eye reached land, downed power lines and fallen trees made driving hazardous. Thousands of residents remain without power.
Port St. Joe, still farther east, suffered considerably, and its main street, Reid Avenue, resembled a combat zone today. Glass was strewn everywhere, and a giant "Prescription Drugs" sign lay in an intersection.
"Last time, it did all the damage on the other side of the street," said Jean Beaden, owner of a video store on Reid Avenue. "This time, it did all the damage to us. Luckily, we've got two other stores that survived in Panama City, so I guess we'll sit through another one."
Down the road, Beverly Sherman, owner of a general store, was busily cleaning windows and counting her blessings. "If I can get enough grime off of here, I'll be open for business with or without power. We are fortunate. It could have been worse," she said.
Like others, she praised the cooperation of town residents. "We all pitch in and help when we can," she said. "You're not alone with your problems. You've got company to bear it with."
Lack of electricity in Port St. Joe was the major obstacle. Some stores opened, using emergency generators, while cars and trucks lined up for three blocks at the only open gasoline station.
About 100,000 Florida panhandle households were reported without electricity today, and power may not be completely restored for a week, utility officials said. Similar outages were reported on a lesser scale in Georgia and the Carolinas.
Leaving Port St. Joe for Apalachicola meant breaching an obstacle course. Highway 98 is intermittently blocked and barricaded, flooded and in some places destroyed, forcing motorists into an often circuitous route through debris-cluttered side streets.
Taking this treacherous course through neighboring Oak Grove, one passed a tiny airstrip where a hangar collapsed atop the small single-engine plane inside.
At Apalachicola, journey's end, the bridge linking the town to the eastern portion of the state -- the panhandle's actual connection to the peninsula -- is closed because of a gaping hole.
In the town, badly battered by Elena when she lingered off the coast in September, was widespread devastation.
Trees lay atop houses, most streets were impassable and boats listed awkwardly at docks. At the corner of Sixth Street and Avenue D, the town water tower had collapsed on its side in a gnarled mesh of steel, cutting off water to most residents.
Today, the 11th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season swept north through Georgia and into the Carolinas, weakening to a tropical storm. Kate was blamed for as many as 16 deaths in Cuba, and at least seven in this region since Wednesday.