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In Cape San Blas, a wary walk to find out what Michael left behind

Photos by BRONTE WITTPENN | Times A broken road leads into Cape San Blas on Saturday. The town was damaged by Hurricane Michael when it made landfall nearby on Wednesday.
Published Oct. 15, 2018

CAPE SAN BLAS — On the kind of sunny, no-clouds-in-the-sky day that usually brings tourists and dogs to frolic on the sand dunes, residents instead trekked over broken asphalt, alongside a leveled beach, on a pilgrimage to find out what was left.

The cape, which sticks its chin out into the Gulf of Mexico, is about 16 miles south of where Hurricane Michael made landfall last week.

Storm surge submerged much of this narrow strip of land. It washed away the giant dunes, and with them went the sand on which the only access road was built. Cape San Blas Road lay in ruins, broken up into large asphalt sheets, rendered impassable for all but the most daring in the tallest SUVs.

Everyone else had to drive as far as the road allowed Saturday afternoon, park and start walking. All had seen the devastation of Mexico Beach. They feared for Cape San Blas.

Al and Pam Otto tried to keep it lighthearted. They had seen an image of their home on the local TV Station. There was a hole in the roof, which meant the storm got in. They didn't know how bad the damage was.

"This is in God's hands and it's going to be what it's going to be," said Al Otto, 62, as they walked toward answers. "Maybe we're in for an upgrade."

Randy Fike, 52, wore a look of determination. He made the 3-mile trek home shirtless in the sun. He had to check on his wife.

Her ashes were there, in an urn on the bottom shelf of a book case in a home office. He was out of town when the storm took aim at Cape San Blas. He couldn't get back in time to get them.

"I want them to be there," he said. "But if the ashes aren't there, at least she's in the bay."

• • •

It was love at first sight when Fike and his wife Judy Caldwell first saw Cape San Blas in 2011.

She had been diagnosed with cancer and wanted to live the kind of life that only a beach community of 300 could provide. They had planned to buy land to build, but found a home they adored so much they bought it the first weekend they visited. They gave up their Cleveland lives and moved into a tall yellow home with dark wood floors and a big porch.

She got to spend about four years living her dream. She died in 2015, at the age of 65.

She loved the house, and they picked out all the decorations together. It was symbol of how far they'd come; she from Oxford, Miss., and he from Pensacola. As Fike put it: "For her to go from Southern poor like I was, to die in this house, it means a lot."

He always wanted to spread her ashes in the bay nearby. But he was never ready to do it.

Still, he tried to stay optimistic that the house was in good shape. The power poles were still standing as he walked — a good sign. The stilted waterfront homes, all painted different colors, suffered damage but remained intact, nothing like the piles of rubble in Mexico Beach.

TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: HURRICANE MICHAEL

DESTRUCTION: Is it time to rewrite Florida's building code?

SURVIVING:Mexico Beach locals banding together to survive

END OF THE ROAD: Life on Alligator Point.

FIERCE: Michael's strength reached those inland.

30 IMAGES: The Times eyewitness account to damage inflicted by Hurricane Michael after landfall

Fike's subdivision, Ovation, is on the other side of the road from the gulf, protected by dunes more than 10 feet high. He hoped there was enough land between his home and Saint Joseph's Bay to absorb the storm surge.

A volunteer firefighter took him the last two miles in a golf cart.

The first thing Fike noticed was all his plants died from the salt water. The yellow house was elevated, and a line along the foundation revealed the high water mark. It was waist high.

• • •

The Ottos had named their blue-gray stilt house "Goin' Coastal." They managed to keep that sense of humor as they walked toward it. But they could not mask their growing dread.

"Look! My golf clubs!" Al Otto yelled to his wife at the sight of a stranger's golf bag lying in the brush.

They saw their kayak in the street from up the road.

"That's good news, just haul it back in," Pam Otto said. "But it means the rest of our stuff will be in the street."

It was. A box of life jackets. A table the husband made from salvaged beach wood that washed up after Hurricane Hermine in 2016. Their grill.

The Atlanta couple bought it as a second home. These days it's their only home.

Not anymore. The hole in the roof could be seen from the beach. The concrete slab foundation was cracked because the sand that supported it was missing underneath. A ground floor storage room had lost a wall. The foyer was caked in mud.

"I didn't come all the way here to sweep," Pam Otto joked.

Still, the elevated first floor was remarkably pristine. The quartz countertops retained their shine. A chalkboard still read "Welcome to Goin' Coastal," with a smiley face drawn into a sun.

But there was that hole in the roof. An upstairs bedroom was covered in torn insulation because of the new skylight. Now comes the uncertainty: Will the insurance company pay to fix the house, or total it?

Fins gave away a pod of dolphins swimming close to the shoreline.

"At least they did okay," said Al Otto, still trying to keep it light.

• • •

Of the cape's 300 or so full-time residents, about 30 stayed for the storm. Fire Chief Vince Bishop said he had been in touch with all of them. They all made it.

Everyone's homes, he said, fared better than he expected. Most had siding ripped off, holes punched through, sand stolen from underneath. But few, if any, were completely destroyed by the Category 4 storm.

The quiet of Cape San Blas was in stark contrast to the chaos in Mexico Beach. There were hardly any deputies on the cape. No rescue teams. No cleanup crews. No heavy machinery to start re-assembling the broken roadway.

"Given we only have 300 people out here," Bishop said, "we're last on the list for supplies."

The cape has the feel of a bygone era, when Florida beaches were peaceful and could be enjoyed in solitude. There are no high-rises, no water slides and few children. The residents know each other's names, and so do the deputies on patrol.

It's an under-regulated bastion for people who want to enjoy life on the beach on their terms. Bonfires are allowed on the beach, as are dogs and even cars.

The cape is an integral part of the economic engine of rural Gulf County, a small municipality of about 16,000 that sits in both the Eastern and Central time zones. The tourism dollars that flow from the cape and the nearby coastal city of Port St. Joe account for a majority of the county's tax base.

Hurricane Michael was a third strike for a county that's been forced to reinvent itself again and again. Port St. Joe's paper mill closed in 1999, sending unemployment skyrocketing. The housing crisis robbed Gulf County of tourists. And now Michael.

The storm surge was so corrosive that it destroyed the narrow land bridge that connected the inhabited portion of Cape San Blas and T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, creating a brand new island — the same phenomenon separated Honeymoon Island and Caladesi Island after the Tarpon Springs Hurricane struck Pinellas County in 1921.

Michael also robbed the cape of its iconic sweeping dunes. That loss threatens the cape's lifeblood, tourism.

"This cape's never going to be the same," Fike said.

• • •

Fike had hope for two outcomes:

If the storm had swept his wife Judy's ashes out to sea, he hoped the house would go with her. But if the house still stood, he had hoped she would still be there, in her dream home on the beach.

What he dreaded was finding her ashes scattered amidst a broken home.

"I didn't want this house to be decimated and her ashes to be here, and this is where she ends," he said.

Fike checked the exterior, then quickly headed inside to the office.

There, on the bottom shelf, was a box-shaped urn.

Judy Campbell was still in her favorite spot on the beach.

"She rode out the storm."

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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