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Resilience and helping hands power Cedar Key through recovery after Hermine

Gina Stefani and her husband, Peter, are rebuilding their Island Room Restaurant. The flag is a symbol of the island’s resilience.
Gina Stefani and her husband, Peter, are rebuilding their Island Room Restaurant. The flag is a symbol of the island’s resilience.
Published Oct. 23, 2016

CEDAR KEY — One night last month the Gulf of Mexico, roused and angered by Hurricane Hermine, swallowed Cedar Key.

A nine-foot storm surge blanketed the downtown area with slimy brown muck. Businesses lost their lucrative Labor Day weekend. Many around town wore the same dazed, defeated face.

But the waters receded, and the resilience of the island's 700 residents kicked in. Determined not to lose the city's annual Pirate Festival two weeks later, they worked tirelessly to clean up and recover.

"You walked around and this place looked like an anthill with all the activity," said Andy Bair, owner of the historic Island Hotel.

And when they looked up, residents were surprised to see hundreds of volunteers at their side. City Commissioner Sue Colson heard about a family with children who gave up a weekend at Walt Disney World to instead help out at Cedar Key.

"It makes you proud to know what you think about your city, other people feel like that," she said. "It's a family place and I think what we got back was the family feeling."

• • •

Aaron Richardson was surprised by the extent of the damage when he saw Cedar Key on television.

So the Chiefland High School football coach rounded up a group of 15 players to lend a hand on the island the day after the storm.

"That's Levy County," said senior running back and safety Jamarlon Bowers, 18, "and they needed help."

Organizers assigned the team to the waterfront, where they worked to remove fallen telephone poles and pieces of docks that ended up in people's yards.

They also retrieved canoes and kayaks that had floated away from homes.

"It was nasty work with the mud and the water, but they worked through it," Richardson said. "They did a great job."

Residents seemed grateful for the help, he said.

"Some of the kids went to church on Sunday, and people there were talking about it."

• • •

The gutted Island Room stood completely empty, a blank slate, but even that was an improvement over the broken glass that crunched under visitors' feet after the storm.

"It's getting 'less worse' every day," said co-owner and chef Peter Stefani.

He and his wife, Gina, are rebuilding, because leaving didn't seem like an option.

"I can't throw away the business," he said. "It's 25 years of my life."

Luckily, they had insurance. The policy doesn't cover lost revenue — which he estimates at $20,000 to $25,000 a month.— and it can't ensure there won't be another hurricane.

But it pays for repairs, and with the busy season still a few months away, the Stefanis plan to fix things they disliked about the restaurant, like the shape of the bar.

They hope to be finished by February, when out-of-towners flock to enjoy the locally sourced seafood and gourmet pastas at the water's edge.

That very location left the restaurant vulnerable to the storm surge. Waves lapped at the walls. Furniture was carried out to sea. Six weeks later, Stefani was still finding wine bottles buried beneath his broken dock.

Amid debris in a condo management office, Gina Stefani found a battered American flag.

It hangs now in a windowless void, blowing in the wind. A photo of the flag on social media became a symbol of the island's recovery.

"When devastation takes place that's what we're supposed to do: Remember we are Americans and we can take care of anything," she said.

• • •

For five days, Cedar Key Gulf Coast Gold could not sell clams.

But only five days.

Its processing plant burned down during an electrical fire attributed to the storm. So workers built a makeshift outdoor plant from plastic tubs and PVC pipe on a covered deck adjacent to the building's charred remains.

"It's determination," said manager Joe Cannon.

Gulf Coast Gold leases 18 acres of sea floor off the coast of Cedar Key, across which employees plant 12,000 mesh bags containing clams. The clams bury themselves in the sand and complete their growth before being harvested.

Debris from the storm surge uprooted about 500 of the bags, Cannon said. He found 300 of them, but the lost ones mean nearly $20,000 in uncollected revenue. A single bag sells for $70 to $110, he said.

The storm also killed 2.5 million baby clam "seeds" worth $18,000.

"We lost our future," Cannon said.

But he tries not to look back at Hermine. The building is under construction, and he's focusing on moving forward.

"You can look around and be depressed, but I ain't got time for that," Cannon said. "That's our mentality."

• • •

Even after the effort to clean up downtown's Second Street as quickly as possible, reminders lingered.

The front door to Tony's Seafood, a joint so proud of its clam chowder it'll ship to you, wore a sign alerting customers to the sticking doorknob, a feature courtesy of Hermine.

A sign on the library's front door relieved delinquent book borrowers of their fines, as the library couldn't accept returns. A peek through the building's window showed empty shelves.

And the City Hall and the post office, both of which took on water, were in temporary quarters. The former took up residence in the Chamber of Commerce building, and the latter was operating out of a parked U.S. Postal Service truck.

All that said, police Chief Virgil Sandlin felt lucky.

"I shudder to think what could happen with a bigger storm," he said.

Only 30 to 35 percent of the island's residents evacuated before Hermine, despite forecasts that the Category 1 storm would bring storm surge, heavy rain and high wind.

If a larger storm took out any of the city's seven bridges, especially the one connecting it to the mainland, people would be stranded.

Sandlin implored residents to be more mindful next time: "Heed the warning."

• • •

When Hurricane Matthew hit the east coast of Florida two weeks ago, Cedar Key was among the communities offering safe lodging.

All 400 or so hotel rooms in town — minus roughly 60 that were still out of commission from Hermine — were booked with east coast residents who evacuated their homes ahead of the powerful storm.

Town officials even put a sign on U.S. 19 to tell passers-by there were no rooms left, so that people didn't drive 20 miles out to the island only to be turned away.

That meant on a normally quiet October weekend, the town was full of tourists.

"A lot of businesses said they got their Labor Day back," said Cedar Key Mayor Heath Davis.

He noticed that some of the visitors wandering around town that weekend had the same dazed look his residents had immediately after Hermine.

But the residents were no longer storm victims. They had gone back to being caretakers. It was a familiar and welcome role.

"Having these people in town who our people could relate to," he said, "really put the spring back in people's step."

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @josh_solomon15.

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