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Seaside's mystique mostly unscathed by Ivan

Barely a week after a ferocious Category 3 hurricane struck Florida's Panhandle, sunset in this utopia of New Urbanism drew joggers, picnickers and a trio of wild teenage surfers.

Hurricane? What hurricane?

"Life is pretty much back to normal in Seaside," town spokeswoman Stacey Brady said Thursday. "The most inconvenience we've got is we have to walk a few more yards to get out to the beach."

Ivan _ with its 130-mph winds and violent storm surge _ made landfall in Pensacola, starting a path of devastation that displaced thousands. But this stretch of coastline 70 miles to the east saw only tropical storm-force winds and battering waves.

Seaside's 480 houses, built to some of the strictest codes in the state, stood up to the weather. A few window screens were lost, a few French doors failed to keep water out. But the brick streets lined with traditional, clapboard houses are as quaint and pristine as planners envisioned them 23 years ago. Think new-money Norman Rockwell.

The worst damage is on the beach, where the towering dunes are gouged and bruised, leaving a peppery coating on the pure quartz sand.

Half the staircases leading from the pavilions to the shore washed away. The rest are impassable.

But town maintenance workers quickly built a sand bridge so as not to deny beach access.

Marlea Higgins, from Montgomery, Ala., spent several anxious days monitoring Ivan's path. Her daughter was to be married Thursday in a pavilion atop the dunes.

Finally able to relax Wednesday, she stood ankle-deep in the Gulf of Mexico and sipped red wine with her husband and two friends.

"I just prayed that the Lord would take his hands and protect Seaside," Higgins said.

Pat Roberts, a Tallahassee lobbyist, just completed construction on a commercial building downtown. Opus in Seaside is a four-story concrete fortress with a retail shop on the ground floor and condos starting at $2.2-million above.

Roberts rode out the hurricane inside.

"We could sit there and watch the seas rolling in," he said. "It was an amazing sight _ the 10-, 15-, 20-foot waves rolled as far as you could see."

Seaside sits about 38 feet above sea level _ high enough to make flood insurance unnecessary. All the houses and shops are behind the dunes.

"We don't prune our dunes, we don't cut them back at all," Brady said. "They remain our first and best defense in a storm, and that's exactly what happened this time."

Seaside _ the name refers both to the unincorporated town and the various companies that run it _ was founded nearly 24 years ago.

The idea was to blend Old Florida architecture with traditional values of urban planning, such as closely set houses, front porches and pedestrian-friendly streets. The result is a holiday hamlet with ever-escalating property values. Only about 50 residents live here year-round, Brady said. But seven-figure listings on condos and cottages don't deter newcomers.

It's difficult to imagine anything truly bad happening in Seaside, which served as the set for the 1998 film The Truman Show. Security officers ride bikes and drive golf carts. The sound of a siren is rare.

But this summer's storms have required repeated use of the town's detailed hurricane plan. Revised every year, it addresses issues such as boarding up buildings and communicating with incoming vacationers.

Porch furniture was dragged indoors. Beachside weddings were rescheduled. The bad weather came and went.

Then, in accordance with the Seaside mystique, normalcy returned.

Said Brady: "The day after the storm, we had guests calling wanting to know when they could get in here."

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