More than three months after Michael, Florida's state parks still dealing with damage

Three state parks remain closed because of the hurricane damage, and two may never be the same.
Published January 18
Updated January 19

Hurricane Michael was so powerful that when it hit the Florida Panhandle last fall, it tore a state park in two.

The storm surge that pushed through T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park in Cape San Blas sliced open two inlets, cutting through the park and connecting St. Joseph Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The largest inlet, now 20 feet deep, separated the main park area on the peninsula from the campground and nature trails on the other side. Instead of a peninsula, there’s now an island.

More than three months later, state park officials are still trying to figure out what to do about that as they work to reopen all of St. Joseph Peninsula and three other state parks that remain closed because of all the damage caused by the hurricane.

When Michael, a Category 4 hurricane, slammed into the center of the Panhandle last October, it killed at least 43 people and either destroyed or badly damaged thousands of houses and stores, a prison and an Air Force base, as well as roads and other facilities. It also took a heavy toll on the environmental features of the area.

PRIOR COVERAGE: Calls mount to classify Michael a Category 5.

Soaring dunes were knocked down and miles of beaches eroded. Sewer plants lost power and dumped thousands of gallons of wastewater in nearby waterways.

Thousands of acres of timberland were flattened.

“The bigger the trees, the more likely they were to come down,” said Jim Karels of the Florida Forest Service.

Meanwhile the state parks that attract thousands of campers, birders, hikers and paddlers to the Panhandle every year took a big hit.

PRIOR COVERAGE: Michael victims fear they have already been forgotten.

Thirty-one state parks were clobbered by Michael, which left behind damage to them totaling $50 million, according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Sarah Shellabarger. The storm ripped up 120 buildings, damaged park equipment, smashed vehicles, disrupted utilities and washed out roads, and left behind construction and vegetative debris, she said.

Three parks remain closed: Three River State Park, tucked into the area where Florida meets the southwest Georgia border; Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park, on Apalachicola Bay, which is popular with birders and beachcombers; and Florida Caverns State Park near Marianna, the only state park that offers public cave tours. Florida Caverns State Park, more than 60 miles inland from Panama City Beach, suffered the worst damage.

“Since becoming a state park in 1942, visitors have wandered through and explored the different trails within the forest and camped under the shade of the huge trees,” a Florida State Parks report states. “Now, a majority of the trees are gone. Hurricane Michael’s strong winds caused the trees to fall or snap in half. They fell on structures and blocked access roads. Park staff were trapped in their residences inside the park” until rescuers showed up with chainsaws.

“That park will never be the same,” Karels predicted. “Michael took it apart.”

Some of the parks are open but their most significant features are still closed. Falling Waters State Park, near Chipley, contains the state’s biggest waterfall. The park centers on a 100-foot deep, 20-foot wide cylindrical pit into which flows a stream that drops 73 feet to the bottom — and then disappears.

The park itself is open, but access to the waterfall is limited because the lower observation deck remains closed by the continued hurricane cleanup.

As for St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Shellabarger said, part of the park was reopened on Friday for day use, although the campground and trails remain closed. Park officials convened a public meeting Jan. 15 to give people in the Port St. Joe area “the opportunity to discuss future management of the park, including options for addressing the breach.”

A bright spot: Michael barely touched state forests in the Panhandle. Karels said it steered a course that ran between Pine Log State Forest — Florida’s first state forest, dating to 1936, located about 14 miles north of Panama City — and Tate’s Hell State Forest, near Carrabelle. As a result, Karels said, “we really received minimal damage.”

Instead, the biggest damage was to privately owned timberlands throughout the Panhandle. There are some areas with 100 tons of downed wood per acre, Karels said, which could lead to another tragedy later this year.

“The fire danger right now is just incredible,” he said. Responding to a one-acre blaze recently, “it took us three hours to get to the fire as we were trying to open roads.”

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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