(ran SP, NP, TP, HT, PT editions)
When Hurricane Opal roared through this area last October, it was cruel but also kind.
Its storm surge wiped out many of the older, more poorly built homes and businesses closest to the water from Pensacola east to Mexico Beach. But its winds were relatively calm, sparing almost everything _ except for some roofs _ built behind the dunes.
Opal also spared the area in another way: It was well-timed, at the end of the area's biggest tourist season. That gave the Panhandle about five months to repair the damage before the next busy season, college spring break, arrived.
And now, as the tourists start returning, it appears that most businesses have recovered enough _ at least in some form _ to be ready for them.
Financially, merchants and hotel owners knew that pulling off a quick recovery was a life-or-death challenge for them. Tourism has become a big business here: In 1994, about 7-million visitors came to the area, just over 17 percent of the state's total. It's the biggest business around for many of the area's beach towns.
In Panama City Beach, for instance, only about 5,000 people are permanent residents, but last year roughly 3-million tourists visited its 20 miles of beaches. That compares to the 4-million people who came to Pinellas County last year.
So Panhandle businesses have worked fast and furiously to rebuild. The damage varied from town to town, so the recovery has been faster in some places, slower in others. For instance, the beaches of south Walton County look nearly untouched, while Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach still look as if they were hit by a snowstorm, with sand drifts filling yards.
For about two frustrating months after the storm, almost no rebuilding or repair work occurred. It took that long for insurance adjusters to do their work and for state and local permitting agencies to visit. Property owners also had to make tough decisions about whether to rebuild.
"We didn't know which direction we were going to go for a while," said Tom Cason, director of the Bay County Tourist Development Council.
But slowly and steadily, insurance companies began to settle property owners' claims and the state began issuing permits.
The construction crews arrived, and cranes vied with the bungee jumps for a spot on the Panama City Beach skyline.
Panama City Beach had to do more than fix its buildings. It also had to fix its sand.
"That is our commodity," said Panama City Beach Mayor Philip Griffitts.
The storm left the area's famous sugar sand filled with debris, including sharp objects that could puncture the tootsies of barefoot beach walkers.
The tourist council and the county have spent nearly $2-million to pay a Texas company to run the sand through a high-tech sifter.
In March, special machines sifted the sand a foot deep along 20 miles of beach. The machine sifts out any debris more than a quarter-inch long and spits it into a refuse bin.
Hotels that were damaged but not destroyed have reopened with new carpeting and furniture. And the ones rebuilt, it is hoped, will better withstand the next hurricane.
"Aesthetically, it's going to be more pleasing," Cason said. "And the beach was cleaner than it has ever been."
Meanwhile, Panama City Beach seized on the chance to enact a new sign ordinance while everybody's signs were down, calling for smaller, more tasteful signs to replace the old ones.
"A lot of the articles had talked about us being tacky," Griffitts said. "Some people jokingly refer to this as urban renewal. But it's a horrible way."