In Big Bend, comparing hurricanes and feeling relief. For now.

Scattered debris and damage can be seen Thursday along these Shell Point Beach homes the day after Hurricane Michael struck the Florida Panhandle. [BRONTE WITTPENN   |   Times]
Scattered debris and damage can be seen Thursday along these Shell Point Beach homes the day after Hurricane Michael struck the Florida Panhandle. [BRONTE WITTPENN | Times]
Published Oct. 12, 2018

KEATON BEACH — Along the Big Bend, they still talk about Hermine.

In 2016 the Category 1 hurricane smacked Keaton Beach, a coastal community with sky-high stilted homes in Taylor County, with 8-foot storm surge and 90 mph winds. In Cedar Key, the surge that year rose to nine feet and destroyed businesses.

Hurricane Michael just doesn't compare. It may have struck with 155 mph winds, killed at least four people in Florida and damaged towns across the Panhandle. But here, it only forced five feet of water onto Keaton Beach and the winds were just 60 mph.

"For us that's nothing," said Spy Aibejeris, 38, a landscaper and manager of his mother's RV park, which sits at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.

Even Cedar Key, which juts vulnerably into the Gulf in Levy County, fared better under Michael. This time storm surge was just six feet.

"I never thought I would be glad about a six foot storm surge," said Cedar Key police Chief Virgil Sandlin. "But I am elated with a six foot storm surge."

That's what folks in Florida do these days: compare hurricanes.

That's how they know how fortunate they were — or weren't.

• • •

The Aibejerises are no stranger to storms.

Spy Aibejeris grew up on his mother's land along the gulf in Keaton Beach. Her home, restaurant and motel all sat on it.

Until the No Name Storm of 1993.

The storm — or as he calls it, "The Storm of the Century" — demolished everything in sight. He and his mother, Lynn Aibejeris, rode out the storm squeezing rafters as their house broke apart around them.

At least 15 deaths were blamed on that storm — including one person who died inside Lynn's motel.

"We had absolutely nothing," his sister Dianthe Aibejeris said.

• • •

They rebuilt, this time opting for a campground with some RV slabs. It stood its ground against hurricanes like Dennis in 2005 — and even a Category 4 storm like Michael this week.

But Hermine overpowered them back. That storm destroyed Lynn Aibejeris' home, Spy Aibejeris' dock, the campground dock and ripped the electrical boxes from the RV pads.

They rebuilt again. Though this time, Lynn Aibejeris opted for a mobile home, because it isn't bound by the 19-foot height requirement. At 78, she didn't want to keep ascending the stairs.

Just last week, her son completed a wooden structure that hangs over the mobile home, complete with a roof and a porch. Hurricane Michael didn't touch it.

"I hate that Michael devastated so many others, but here I feel fortunate," Dianthe Aibejeris said.

"We were so lucky. We've been through it."

• • •

Eeriness blanketed Cedar Key on Wednesday night, just hours after Michael made landfall and kept going north. The bridge to the mainland had been closed during that afternoon's high tide and opened just before sunset, a striking blend of vibrant yellow peeking through vicious black clouds.

In the waning hours of daylight, famed Dock Street, lined with seafood restaurants that overhang the water, appeared to have survived intact. Hermine snapped the restaurants' wooden decks like twigs.

Sandlin, who worked 20-hour days Tuesday and Wednesday, said the storm had been bearing down on the Big Bend, but shifted course to make landfall about 60 miles further west. Those miles were critical.

"I can't even fathom what a storm of that magnitude coming through this area would do," he said.

For those with plans to visit, the police chief wanted to make one thing clear: "Cedar key is open."

This time around, that is.

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or Follow @ByJoshSolomon.


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