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Florida’s Horseshoe Beach is hoping to keep its charm after being overrun by Idalia

HORSESHOE BEACH, Fla. (AP) – This remote coastal enclave known as “Florida’s Last Frontier” was badly hit by Hurricane Idalia hit the west coast of the state classified as a Category 3 storm last week.

The leave damage in the fishing village of Horseshoe Beach reveals a rift between the haves and have-nots, as cash-strapped residents may be forced to flee the quaint, remote community like few others on the Florida coast.

With emergency services still working To restore power and provide temporary housing, locals fear those who can’t afford insurance will struggle to reconstruct homes that must conform to modern, more expensive building codes. Longtime residents have mixed optimism that charm – and business – will return to the quiet town of fewer than 200 people.

“We’ve got all of old Florida here,” said Tammy Bryan, song director for First Baptist Church, “and today we feel like it’s been taken away from us.”

Sparky Abrandt, 77, center right, an electrician who moved to the city five years ago, welcomes friends on the lower level of his stilt house in Horseshoe Beach, Fla. Idalia on September 1, 2023, two days after the hurricane hit.
Sparky Abrandt, 77, center right, an electrician who moved to the city five years ago, welcomes friends on the lower level of his stilt house in Horseshoe Beach, Fla. Idalia on September 1, 2023, two days after the hurricane hit.

Rebecca Blackwell via Associated Press

Horseshoe Beach was largely spared the worst historical storms to hit the state, but Idalia sped with winds of 125 miles per hour (200 km/h) and a storm surge that leveled some homes and knocked others off their foundations the canals collapsed, ashore.

Asked at a news conference Sunday whether climate change was responsible for Idalia’s severity, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said other, more powerful hurricanes had struck the state decades earlier. Climate scientists have said that the Gulf waters have been warming due to climate change helped Idalia intensify quickly.

“The idea that hurricanes are something new is just wrong,” said DeSantis, a candidate for the 2024 Republican Party presidential nomination. “The idea that somehow if we have very leftist politics at the federal level, there will be no hurricanes , is simply a lie.”

According to Jimmy Butler, a real estate agent who has been in town since 2000, most Horseshoe Beach residents cannot afford insurance. He predicted the debris could be cleared in a few months, but a return to normal would take years.

Idalia is “the worst thing Horseshoe Beach has ever had to deal with,” Butler said.

Tina Brotherton, 88, fears the hurricane will hasten changes that began with the so-called Storm of the Century in 1993, an unnamed off-season hurricane that swept across the Florida Panhandle in March. A Horseshoe Beach resident since 1978, she lost her marina and cafe next door in this disaster and had to replace the floors and beds at Tina’s Dockside Inn.

Tina Brotherton, 88, is hugged by 9-year-old neighbor Lainey Hamelink as she returns to the site of her business, Tina's Dockside Inn, which was completely destroyed in Hurricane Idalia, as was Brotherton's nearby home in Horseshoe Beach, Fla. , on September 1, 2023, two days after the storm passed.
Tina Brotherton, 88, is hugged by 9-year-old neighbor Lainey Hamelink as she returns to the site of her business, Tina’s Dockside Inn, which was completely destroyed in Hurricane Idalia, as was Brotherton’s nearby home in Horseshoe Beach, Fla. , on September 1, 2023, two days after the storm passed.

Rebecca Blackwell via Associated Press

Now the hotel she has owned for 52 years is being destroyed in the wake of Idalia. Such is her home. She didn’t have flood insurance because her low buildings made it too expensive.

Modern building codes require homes to be raised to a certain height to protect against storms, and raising a home can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Brotherton said it brought in “a different kind of people” with “more money” and more expensive homes.

“It’s not a fishing village anymore,” she said as she searched the rubble for a stool that belonged to her mother. “We’re packed with golf carts, ATVs, and airboats.”

Brotherton has no intention of leaving the community but wants to stay close by and live about 5 miles inland with her son.

Tourism in Horseshoe Beach is fueled by adventurous visitors drawn by the natural beauty rather than the massive commercial developments found in many other tropical destinations. Fishing trips and shrimp fishing are an economic driver, and many residents are blue-collar workers living in modest mobile homes or retired people in quiet homes.

Stephanie Foley, a 41-year-old teacher whose husband and brother hope to take over their father’s shrimp business, described Horseshoe Beach as a close-knit community where people don’t feel like they have to lock their doors.

“I feel extremely safe down here and for many we live in paradise,” Foley said. “We wake up – we can go fishing anytime.”

But she, too, fears the features that make the place so special could disappear, leaving many unaffordable to rebuild.

“Slowly, the laws on all of this have made it harder to make our living on the water,” Foley said. “I think that a cherished way of life will be lost.”

Brent Woodard, the 34-year-old owner of Reel Native Fishing Charters in Horseshoe Beach, said locals assumed it was only a matter of time before the area hit — that’s the only time Florida can avoid hurricanes.

His priority now is to ensure the fishing industry can get back up and running quickly. Storms can damage the plains where fishermen and crabs live and tear up the grass where fish hide, feed and spawn.

Most locals live paycheck to paycheck, Woodard said, wondering how many lots will come up for sale.

Fishing “pays the bills,” he said, but “let’s face it, you don’t make a millionaire by going out crabbing and you don’t make a millionaire by buying oysters or being a fishing guide.”

“They’re hard-working people,” said Jimmy Patronis, Florida chief financial officer. “Mother Nature will wipe them off the map and they’ll be like, ‘You know what? Maybe that’s a sign for us to pay out money.’”

Timmy Futch, 63, who owns Florida Cracker Shrimp & Bait Co. with his wife, had never before experienced a hurricane stronger than a weak Category 1 hurricane. But he said he noticed the storms ” bigger” have become “mean.”

Although Idalia pumped 3 feet (almost 1 meter) of water into their shop, the structure remains intact. Luckily, in anticipation of possible flooding, the couple installed outlets about waist-high. However, they need to repaint and sanitize the place.

The docks were destroyed, but he saved his two boats by transporting them about 90 miles away before the storm hit, taking 14 hours one-way and also towing a friend’s boat in the process.

A fourth-generation resident and longtime shrimp fisherman, boat captain and owner, Futch hopes to reopen his business within a month and is confident tourists will return.

“If the fish bite, it doesn’t matter what happened six or eight months later,” he said. “They will come to catch you some fish.”

“We’re native Floridians, and for someone up north, this is like a blizzard. We just squat down,” Futch said. “I guess we’re too stubborn to stop.”

Associated Press contributors Daniel Kozin, Michael Schneider, and Brendan Farrington contributed to this report. Pollard is a corps member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover undercover topics.

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