Hurricane Michael: Life at the end of the road on Alligator Point

Published Oct. 12, 2018

ALLIGATOR POINT — Wearing a bright yellow volunteer firefighter T-shirt and a weary smile, Corinna McEwen trudged past a group of Florida National Guard soldiers.

They were sent Friday to help clear Alligator Drive, the road leading to her beachfront bar, the Alligator Point Tiki Hut. It's a popular hangout for longtime residents and vacationing homeowners.

Or it was until Hurricane Michael devastated much of the Panhandle this week.

The storm washed away a 2-mile stretch of Alligator Drive, leaving behind just a few sections of buckled asphalt and concrete. The Tiki Hut is gone, too.

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McEwen and her Alligator Point stalwarts gained a bit of notoriety as Michael swirled ominously toward them. Franklin County Sheriff A. J. Smith called out residents who refused to leave.

"He called us the hard-heads," McEwen said, with a sly, prideful smile. She showed off a photo of her standing in front of the roaring surf, arms spread wide, defying the coming storm.

She stayed all right. But everything she built is gone.

"Back in February, I left a 25-year career as a dental hygienist to become a bar owner," McEwen said. "I must have been insane. I just turned 50 and was going through a mid-life crisis. Now I have no bar and no job."

• • •

McEwen walked past a dozen tan and green National Guard vehicles, most capable of traversing deep water, parked on the side of what was left of Alligator Drive, the only road in and out of Alligator Point.

The troops arrived shortly after 4 p.m. Thursday to clear roads and provide security.

Like much of the Panhandle, the area is without power, though residents did have running water.

Soldiers spent hours working with Air National Guard engineers in front-end loaders, clearing mounds of sand, downed trees and building debris. As the last flashes of pink sky faded to black, they patrolled what used to be the roadway.

"We want people to know we are out here," said Lt. Tom Wagner. "When people know we are out there, it keeps the looters away."

After the sun peaked Friday morning, the troops geared up for the day and awaited orders. Leaning against a tan Humvee, Capt. Erich McCartney talked to headquarters about his plans.

"We are going to try and push out to the point," said McCartney, 37, as the Air National Guard showed up with heavier equipment than the front-end loaders they were using the night before.

In the military, McCartney leads an artillery unit. But it was his civilian calling is what prepared him for this mission.

The Tampa resident is a civil engineer who owns Greyfox Construction.

"We do a lot of work with the Department of Transportation," he said.

• • •

Further on down Alligator Drive, Kevin Perez joined those who will spend the next days cleaning up after the storm.

"Other than smelling like fish, our house is in pretty good shape," he said. "Everybody lost the ground floor stuff though."

He and his wife Carmen originally planned on riding out Michael. But by 4 a.m. Wednesday, they changed plans.

"It was getting really scary, really rough," he said. "So we left."

By the time he came back, his road was gone several hundred yards from his house.

"It happens every time we have a hurricane," he said. "The road goes away."

• • •

Despite being reinforced by two big front-end loaders and a dump truck, Capt. McCartney said the decision was made to pull the plug on trying to push out and repair Alligator Drive.

The damage was too heavy, he said.

"We did what we came to do and cleared out what we could," he said. "There are other areas that need to be cleared now."

Residents living on Alligator Point beyond where the road washed out are relying on four-wheelers or foot to get back and forth.

The lack of road didn't stop Rob and Connie Clarke from making their way via bicycle to what used to be the Tiki Hut and neighboring marina, which also suffered heavy damage.

"We have a house out there, so we figured the road might be damaged," said Rob Clarke, 61, a lawyer in Tallahassee. "That's why we brought our bikes."

The Tiki Hut was one of the couple's favorite places to visit.

"We really enjoy the camaraderie with the locals and tourists," said Rob Clarke. "This was a great gathering place. It is sad to hear that it was destroyed."

His favorite food?

"The grouper sandwich," he said.

• • •

A man who said he was the owner of the Alligator Point Marina was in no mood to talk to reporters and ordered them off the property.

A short while later, McEwen and her boyfriend, Jack Tully, 43, pulled up a side road that used to end at Alligator Drive, back before it was washed away.

"I'm going to miss that, too," said Tully when told about the man gushing about the grouper sandwich. "I am going to miss it all."

McEwen, who rents the property from the marina, said she will try to rebuild, but that nothing is guaranteed.

On her way up Alligator Drive, she waxed philosophic.

"If it doesn't work out, I can always go back to cleaning teeth," she said.

Contact Howard Altman at Follow @haltman.