As the hurricane looms, a weary Panhandle seems resigned to its fate

Many pack up not risking fallout from fierce storm

`we're afraid of this one'

Hurricane Ivan

September 13, 2004|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

APALACHICOLA, Fla. - The waters off of this southern spit of the Florida Panhandle already looked a little dark and worried yesterday, days before Hurricane Ivan is projected to deliver its beating. And if the weather's not yet to blame, perhaps the sea is catching a vibe from the wary and storm-weary people who live along its shores.

It's not that residents here aren't willing to share the grief borne by their fellow Floridians in the state's southern peninsula, who have already suffered the fury of hurricanes Charley and Frances this season. More than one person in Apalachicola yesterday said they felt as if it's the Panhandle's turn this time - that southern Florida has suffered enough.

It's just that the rural expanses of the northern Gulf of Mexico don't need any help to suffer, littered with aging mobile homes and rickety communities that look as though they're barely enduring the fair-weather challenges of life.

"You always know when something bad's happening - you've got people in church you haven't seen in six months," said Emory Roach, pastor of the First Pentecostal Holiness Church on the western edge of town.

"We're just praying that the Lord will kill that thing," said his wife, Susan, who shares the pastor's duties. Added the couple's daughter, Joy Odom: "A lot of people here can't afford to rebuild. A lot of them can't even afford to run away."

Foul weather is no oddity in Apalachicola, a low-lying tourist town at the tip of the Panhandle's southward bend. Year-round residents can tell you their home's elevation as surely as they can tell you its address. Many are already speaking in hurricane language - discussing tidal surges, Saffir-Simpson categories and other attributes of the angry storm aimed at their vulnerable slice of the Florida waterfront.

But while many say they haven't fled a hurricane in decades, few seemed to have the resolve to fight so formidable a storm as Ivan.

"A Category 1 or a Category 2? We'd be throwing a hurricane party," said James Padgett III, working behind the counter at Long's Video on the town's main thoroughfare. "We're afraid of this one. I don't think anyone's sticking around."

Across the counter was Randy Smith - his home is seven feet above sea level and his father's is 25 feet above - who has never paid much mind to the occasional storm with a name that grinds through Apalachicola every few years. But the ferociousness of Ivan, and its determined bead on his hometown, has Smith nailing up plywood and plotting his family's evacuation, just like most of his neighbors.

"This seems like something you don't want to mess around with," said Smith.

Out on St. George Island, a thin barrier island that buffers Apalachicola from the sea, brothers Drew and Dennis Smith - Valdosta, Ga. residents and no relation to Randy Smith - spent most of yesterday screwing 60 or more sheets of plywood to the vacation homes that they own on the waterfront. The two have owned property in the area for nearly 25 years, but never have they bothered to harden them up for a storm. Ivan, they said, is the first to scare them.

But the fate of vacation homes is one problem for rural Florida in Ivan's path, and the lives and livelihoods of the area's full-time residents is yet another.

In the Roach's parsonage house after church yesterday, family members and friends sat on the couches, balanced lunch on their laps and talked about all that they fear could go wrong in the next few days. Oyster beds and commercial fisheries could be ruined, one warned. Horses and family pets could be stranded or killed. The courthouse, which already floods in a good rainstorm, could well be washed away.

A teenager also said she was praying for school to be canceled. And the church's keyboard player suggested a hurricane theme for the next youth group event, with free decorations courtesy of Ivan. But the jokes didn't last long.

"We cut the fool a lot, I know, but it's really just a way to keep your mind off a bad situation," said Emory Roach. "A storm that big could really hurt a lot of people in a place like Apalachicola. People are scared."

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