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Dazed Cedar Key deals with the aftermath of Hurricane Hermine

Debris washed up by Hurricane Hermine’s 9-foot storm surge blocks a street Friday in Cedar Key. The police chief estimated the town suffered at least $10 million in damage.
Published Sep. 3, 2016

They thought they were doing the right thing as Hurricane Hermine approached.

The folks who harvest clams at the Cedar Key Gulf Coast Gold clam farm took all of their gear off the docks and stored it inside the plant as the Category 1 storm bore down on them. They thought it would be safe in there.

But nothing in Cedar Key was safe from Hermine.

The storm made landfall early Friday morning, and after it had passed by that afternoon all that was left of the clam processing plant were charred concrete blocks, tin roofing and the lingering smell of soot. The storm had started an electrical fire.

What Hermine started, the fire finished.

"Everything it takes to run this business was in there," said shop manager Joe Cannon, 43. "It took 15 years to accumulate all the tools, and it took Hermine to take it all away."

Cedar Key is known as an old-fashioned but artsy coastal village that's popular with tourists. But on Friday it was known as one of the Florida towns hardest hit by Hermine, which came ashore about 100 miles northwest of Tampa Bay and lashed most of the state with high winds and heavy rains.

Residents emerged from their shelters in a daze after Florida's first hurricane strike in 11 years. Cedar Key police Chief Virgil Sandlin estimated the town suffered at least $10 million in damage.

The water in Cedar Key rose 9 feet before receding and left signs of destruction visible all over the island. Businesses and homes were destroyed. Personal belongings littered the streets. Docks were mangled. Torn palm fronds were piled on the side of roads.

The town's only grocery store suffered winds and water damage. Inside, rotting food lay strewn all over the floor.

On Dock Street, a loop of road that juts out into the Gulf of Mexico, the decks of restaurants built on stilts over the water were fractured and broken. The interiors were left in shambles.

The same thing happened to all the rooms on the ground floor of the Beach Front Motel. The water rose so high that it pushed the air conditioning units right out of the wall. When the water receded, it left behind seaweed and a thin veneer of mud on the tile floors, as if someone had spilled black paint everywhere.

"None of us on this island were ready for this," said Teresa Gonzalez, who bought the property with her husband only two months ago.

She was in the motel's office Friday afternoon, calling people who were scheduled to stay over the Labor Day weekend. The holiday rate, she said, was between $110 and $135 a night, and all 27 rooms were booked for at least three nights.

"This is the part that's not fun because you see the dollars that aren't going to come in," said Gonzalez, 62, who owns the hotel with her husband, Raul.

She estimated it will be at least two months before she could start accepting guests again. That means she'll miss out on the Cedar Key pirate invasion in two weeks, Seafood Fest in October and maybe even Veterans Day in November.

Cedar Key wasn't alone. Hermine's storm surge coupled with the high tide made for a disastrous combination for towns up and down Florida's west coast.

Levy County issued a mandatory evacuation of the island Thursday morning, but Sandlin estimated that only 30 to 35 percent of the 700 residents complied.

The police chief said it struck him Thursday night just how dangerous the storm might be.

"About 9 o'clock I realized we were in deep, deep trouble," Sandlin said, going on his 36th straight hour working.

Fortunately, the chief said, no one was injured there.

The Levy County Sheriff's Office had blocked entrance to the island after the storm, allowing only residents, businesses owners and workers, utility workers and the media to pass through.

For once, tourists were not welcome at Cedar Key.

"We turned a few of them around," the chief said. "They just wanted to see our pain."

Yet as Cedar Key began to pull itself back together, there was some hope amid the despair.

Rose Cantwell owns another clam shop and volunteered to let Cedar Key Gulf Coast Gold use her equipment until they can rebuild.

She's also staying with a friend, because the storm damaged her home.

In this town, she said, people support each other.

"When you sneeze, there are 20 people to say, 'God bless you.' "

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

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