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Hurricane Idalia engulfed Horseshoe Beach. Nearby, the recovery’s already begun.

The full toll of the storm will not be known for days. But residents are already at work on cleanup.
 
Jeff Erickson hoists the debris blocking authorities from entering Horseshoe  Beach.
Jeff Erickson hoists the debris blocking authorities from entering Horseshoe Beach. [ MAX CHESNES | Times ]
Published Aug. 30, 2023|Updated Aug. 31, 2023

HORSESHOE BEACH — About 18 miles from “Florida’s Last Frontier,” a man in a pickup headed north flashed his headlights. Reporters stopped and rolled their window down.

“Going to Horseshoe Beach?” the man asked. Then he shook his head. “Water tower’s three foot deep under sea water.”

Related: Here are the first drone photos of Florida’s inundated Horseshoe Beach after Idalia

The Category 3 Hurricane Idalia had made landfall 30 miles west of the tiny beach town of about 200 people a few hours earlier. Forecasters projected it could bring storm surge a dozen feet high over the area.

Did everybody leave? Was there anything left?

Half a dozen miles from Horseshoe Beach, David O’Steen arrived home to find half of his roof blown off the ranch-style structure he’s called home for decades. Wasting no time to wallow, he strode around the back yard to what used to be his patio. He plucked a chainsaw out of the wreckage. He started it up. He handed it to his neighbor. There was work to do.

“The Lord blessed us. I’m fine,” O’Steen told a reporter matter of factly. “Other people need to use the road to check out their stuff.”

David O'Steen, 70, calls his neighbor, Rick, and tells him his house is missing its roof after Hurricane Idalia swept through Dixie County early Wednesday morning.
David O'Steen, 70, calls his neighbor, Rick, and tells him his house is missing its roof after Hurricane Idalia swept through Dixie County early Wednesday morning. [ MAX CHESNES | Times ]

Little he could do for the house, anyway, he said.

Two miles from Horseshoe Beach, near the water tower, the road was submerged. Impassible.

Becky Staples waited with her sister for the water to recede so they could return to Becky’s home. Bill Ordner wasn’t about to wait. He didn’t think his girlfriend’s car would survive the flooded road, so he got out and started walking. He tried to straddle the yellow line in the middle of the only road to town so as to keep to its highest point.

The surf began to reveal the town’s fate more than a mile out. Tires, docks, coolers, even refrigerators were carried out by the thrashing Gulf.

About 40 feet from Horseshoe Beach, Ordner came upon a pile of debris. The final challenge blocking his way back home. He and a few other diehards tossed aside bits of plywood, then waved through the trucks gathered just outside city limits.

“Welcome to Horseshoe Beach,” a sign read. “Florida’s last frontier.”

Bill Ordner reaches for an item that came to rest on a “Welcome to Horseshoe Beach” during Hurricane Idalia’s storm surge on Wednesday. Horseshow, a quaint gulf outpost, is home to about 200 people,
Bill Ordner reaches for an item that came to rest on a “Welcome to Horseshoe Beach” during Hurricane Idalia’s storm surge on Wednesday. Horseshow, a quaint gulf outpost, is home to about 200 people, [ MAX CHESNES, MAX CHESNES | Times ]

Times reporters were among the first to survey the stricken town Wednesday morning. Authorities restricted most residents and press from accessing the island until about 3:30 p.m.

On a good day, canals cut through rows of homes, making waterfront property here an affordable dream. On this day, the town revealed the dangers inherent in Florida’s beauty.

Major swaths of the west side of town looked as though someone had dropped stilted homes into the Gulf itself. Homes were ripped from their foundations. The town’s major draw, the marina, appeared hollowed out by the pounding surf.

Parts of Main Street were covered with so much sand, it was hard to believe the road was ever paved. Cutlery, dishes and an upturned pool table were strewn about the road.

On Fourth Avenue, an entire temporary home washed into the middle of the street, blocking it. Essentially every property built on ground-level took damage. City Hall’s windows blew out.

An antique truck is swallowed by Hurricane Idalia’s storm surge in Horseshoe Beach on Florida’s Big Bend.
An antique truck is swallowed by Hurricane Idalia’s storm surge in Horseshoe Beach on Florida’s Big Bend. [ MAX CHESNES, MAX CHESNES | Times ]

Ordner took official warnings seriously. He hunkered down in Cross City Tuesday night. Earlier that day, he said he saw a Coast Guard helicopter make a slow pass around the town. That was his warning.

“I thought, this is the ‘before’ picture,” Ordner said. The “after” picture wasn’t so bad for Ordner, considering. Surge made it to the second deck of his elevated home, but not to the living quarters on the third. His ground floor storage was in disarray, but that was about the extent of it. The place he calls his dream home might live to see another day.

Not everyone heeded the warnings, however.

At about 12:30 p.m., Tom Lanier sauntered out of his home for the first time all day. He had decided to ride out the storm. Like Ordner, Lanier lived in an elevated structure he figured was tall enough to withstand the surge.

At about 6 a.m., his power went out. Then he watched a bizarre display out his window as the surge carried objects past his home: sheds, ice machines, water heaters, 100-gallon propane tanks.

Every time something big crashed into his home’s support pilings, he got a little nervous. Would he stay again? Probably not.

“I used to tell people, ‘I’m not stupid, I’m just slow.’ Now, I’m not so sure,” Lanier said with a wry grin.

Tom Lanier, 78, surveys the damage around his hometown of Horseshoe Beach on Florida’s Big Bend just moments after emerging from his home for the first time since Hurricane Idalia arrived. Lanier rode out the storm in house, which was hoisted on 17-foot stilts
Tom Lanier, 78, surveys the damage around his hometown of Horseshoe Beach on Florida’s Big Bend just moments after emerging from his home for the first time since Hurricane Idalia arrived. Lanier rode out the storm in house, which was hoisted on 17-foot stilts [ MAX CHESNES, MAX CHESNES | Times ]

The retired firefighter moved to Horseshoe Beach 18 years ago. He wanted to be somewhere warm. Now that he’d survived the storm, he wanted to see if his truck had, too.

Past town hall, Lanier gingerly navigated his 78-year-old body through a pile of debris that appeared to be the contents of a nearby home. He climbed to the peak of Horseshoe Beach, probably a dozen feet above sea level, where he parked his F-150. Right near the fire station and the post office.

Lanier opened the door. The inside appeared dry. He pressed a button on his keys. The engine roared to life. He turned and smiled.

“We’re alive and well,” he said.

Tom Lanier, 78, surveys the damage around his hometown of Horseshoe Beach on Florida’s Big Bend just moments after emerging from his home for the first time since Hurricane Idalia arrived.
Tom Lanier, 78, surveys the damage around his hometown of Horseshoe Beach on Florida’s Big Bend just moments after emerging from his home for the first time since Hurricane Idalia arrived. [ MAX CHESNES, MAX CHESNES | Times ]

• • •

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