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Washed away

Dozens of historic homes and businesses on Florida's 'Forgotten Coast' were damaged or washed away like leaves in the rain during Hurricane Dennis last week.

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Sunday, July 17, 2005

ST. TERESA — A part of Old Florida history is now just that — history.

Some of the state's oldest northern beachfront properties were washed away by the floodwaters of Hurricane Dennis, in a surge that took nearly everybody on the Apalachee Bay coastline by surprise.

Chris Matula/The Post

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OCHLOCKONEE: Thomas Petrandis, restaurant manager of Angelo's & Sons Seafood, surveys damage at the well-known eatery, which was condemned after the storm surge washed through it.

Chris Matula/The Post

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ALLIGATOR POINT: Tangled in fencing and seaweed, a vacuum cleaner washed ashore where about a dozen homes were reduced to rubble.

Chris Matula/The Post

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ALLIGATOR POINT: Seen through a gutted home, residents make their way along the beach on an ATV to deliver supplies. Hurricane Dennis' storm surge washed out the lone road connecting the spit of land.

Chris Matula/The Post

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SHELL POINT: JROTC Cadet Kimberly Stanley, holding the garden hose, sprays her classmate, Cadet Shaina Dotson, as they help with the salvage operation at Chuck and Judy King's home. Twenty Wakulla High School JROTC cadets came out Wednesday to help clean up homes damaged by the storm surge.

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Landmark restaurant Angelo's on Ochlockonee Bay: gone. Homes built on the sand in Alligator Point: washed away. Beachfront cottages on St. Teresa passed down from one generation to another: history. Some of the world's most beautiful beach dunes on St. George Island: just memories now.

What Dennis didn't destroy, it flooded with more than 12 feet of water in places, leaving behind the stench of sewage and bathtubs brimming with seaweed and trapping some residents in the part of Old Florida known as "The Forgotten Coast" in chest-high water.

Nearly a week after Dennis slammed ashore more than 150 miles to the west, Franklin and Wakulla counties were still wringing out, mopping up and sweeping away the sand that invaded homes and businesses unlike any other storm this century.

But will the historic flood that quickly and quietly raided Apalachee Bay chase anyone away?

Not a chance.

"Shoot, we'll just clean up and go on," said St. Teresa icon George "Boogie" Cochran, whose great-grandfather James Frances Cochran settled the beachfront island once known as Cochran-Phillips Beach at the turn of the last century.

Like many of Tallahassee's founding families, Cochran and his kin spent summers at vacation homes on the barrier island, just 50 miles south of the state's capital city.

The tiny beachfront community and neighboring Panacea, Carrabelle, St. Marks and Shell Point remain a slice of Florida found in pockets throughout the Big Bend, where the peninsula curves into the Panhandle.

Cochran, 77, abandoned his car down the road last Sunday after driving to a neighbor's to feed her cat and bird. The water came up so fast he was forced to wade back to the one-room home he built on 12 acres nearly 30 years ago.

Cochran's cabin is papered with pictures of him wrestling rattlesnakes and a 10-foot alligator that took up residence in the pond behind his home.

"The house I grew up coming to is the house my mother grew up coming to and my son grew up coming to," said Winn Peeples, looking over his cousin Cochran's shoulder as the two examined a 1931 plat of the area, which went without telephones until the late 1970s, when party lines finally were introduced.

Peeples characterized the region and its inhabitants, including his cousin "Boogie," as true Florida Cracker.

The origin of the term "Cracker," considered an epithet by some rural folks, is unclear, but some historians say the word comes from "corncracking," or grinding of corn used for grits and meal. Others believe it is derived from the sound of whips used to drive cattle and oxen through scrub.

Peeples' great-grandmother was among Tallahassee's elite who escaped the town's summer heat by making the two-day trip to St. Teresa by wagon, bringing along children, milk cows and hogs. At the summer homes, they caught fish from the waters behind their beach cottages, which were equipped with outdoor kitchens and privies.

An unwelcome change

Although property values have skyrocketed as the Panhandle and neighboring shoreline have developed, the sleepy villages along Apalachee Bay have changed little — until now.

Angelo's restaurant overlooking Ochlockonee Bay, a coastal institution established by owner Thomas Petrandis' grandfather in 1945, was condemned Wednesday, just days after the Ochlockonee River ripped chunks of the building away and flooded the contents, leaving its 80 workers without jobs.

The restaurant was like a home to Petrandis, who said his parents stopped by the restaurant after his mother gave birth to him, eager to check on the family business before returning home.

"By far, this place was home to all of us," Petrandis said, on the verge of tears as he picked through rubble beneath a picnic bench on which a tray of key lime pies melted in the afternoon sun.

Petrandis estimated it could take up to two years before the restaurant is up and running again but said he intends to persevere, a reflection of the attitude shared by his coastal neighbors.

"We're going to pick it up and put it back together," said Lehn Marshall, a lifelong Wakulla County resident who ran Petrandis' shrimp boat. "Nothing else to do. We can't leave."

Angelo's provided jobs for several Wakulla County residents, many of whom worked their way through high school in the Petrandis' kitchen, said Marshall, 45.

"A lot of families are going to be affected by this," he said.

On the other side of the Ochlockonee River, Alligator Point — developed much later than St. Teresa — suffered some of the worst damage in the state, said Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers, who had come from Palm Beach County to assist with storm-recovery efforts.

A 12-foot storm surge crumbled or washed away portions of the 4-mile road that is the sole route onto the island and covered what remained with sand.

The dunes that hid the coastline from homes on the bay side of Alligator Point are no more. The world-famous white sand dunes on the eastern end of nearby St. George Island were flattened by the storm surge as well. The island was flooded with sewage.

Dennis reduced about a dozen older homes built on the ground on Alligator Point to rubble. Those on stilts survived, but stairs and bottom-floor sheds wound up in the bay across the road. About 22 homes are now "unlivable," said Franklin County sheriff's deputy Jim Ward.

"It's going to take years for this place to recover," said Barbara Withers, whose husband, George, owned the restaurant that later became Angelo's.

Withers and her son, Pierce, weathered out the storm at their beach home on Alligator Point. Withers called it "the stupidest thing I've ever done in my life."

'We'll just start all over'

Residents and property owners throughout the battered zone remained eerily placid in the face of their loss.

"If you build a house down here, you might as well expect it to be gone the next day. You expect that kind of thing when you own a beach house," said Hank Pepin as he looked into the bay from the gulf-front home his father built in 1958.

The water from the St. Marks River rose so quickly that about eight people in the tiny fishing community named for the river had to be rescued after being trapped in waist-high water.

The water mark inside Posey's Oyster Bar, which sits on the river, was about 4 feet high, about a foot higher than it was after Hurricane Earl, which flogged St. Marks in 1998.

For 40 years, the tavern has been a haunt for lawmakers, who join the locals on picnic benches under the trees to slurp down briny oysters followed by a swig of cold beer.

"I have spent a good number of Sunday evenings preparing for the legislative session at Posey's," said Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon. "It's a tranquil and pleasant place early, and it turns rather rancorous once dusk sets in. The environment inside of Posey's at about 9 o'clock is very similar to the rotunda late in session... including the liquor."

The place is closed now, but owners John Gunter and Daphne Becham, whose family has owned the raucous tavern famous for its oysters and smoked mullet for 20 years, plan to reopen once they clean up and replace broken equipment.

As the couple cleared away broken glass and wayward Budweiser and Tabasco bottles, Becham merely shrugged.

"It's not the first time," she said of the flood.

Employee Joe Walker, 52, agreed.

"We're used to it. Nobody got hurt. A lot of stuff got destroyed. We'll just start all over again."

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