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Idalia demolished some Florida fishing communities. But locals say they'll rebuild

Austin Ellison stares at his damaged property after Hurricane Idalia on Thursday in Horseshoe Beach, Fla. Ellison's family owns a seafood and shrimping business.
Saul Martinez for NPR
Austin Ellison stares at his damaged property after Hurricane Idalia on Thursday in Horseshoe Beach, Fla. Ellison's family owns a seafood and shrimping business.

HORSESHOE BEACH, Fla. — For five generations, Austin Ellison's family has toiled in the shrimping and fishing business here in this picturesque shoreline community nestled in what's known as Florida's Nature Coast along the state's northern Gulf Coast.

"We supply seafood all over the state of Florida. Live shrimp. All kinds of seafood," Ellison said. "There's no place like being here on the water."

But when Hurricane Idalia barreled into the coast as a Category 3 storm on Wednesday with 125 mph winds, his family business, Ed's Bait House, was pounded to the ground.

Ellison points to his shrimping boat, named Miss Laura, floating in a nearby canal. The storm smashed out its windows, but the vessel survived otherwise.

To Ellison, rebuilding means not just the cost of construction, but the additional expense of meeting modern storm-proofing requirements — a daunting task for someone who makes less than $30,000 a year as a seasonal fisherman.

"The rules and regulation in Horseshoe mean if you rebuild, it has to be up in the air, and that takes money," he said. "And money ain't flowing with the poor people down here in Horseshoe."

John Neal hugs his daughter Erin Rose at his damaged property.
/ Saul Martinez for NPR
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Saul Martinez for NPR
John Neal hugs his daughter Erin Rose at his damaged property.

With his family business flattened, and his home here also shredded, Ellison is wondering if it's worth rebuilding at all, or moving on?

"It makes you think, what's next? Do you throw your hands up? What do you do?" he said.

Some residents are wondering if they will rebuild after the hurricane damages many structures and homes.
/ Saul Martinez for NPR
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Saul Martinez for NPR
Some residents are wondering if they will rebuild after the hurricane damages many structures and homes.

What do you do? It's a question many residents and business owners are asking themselves, as they dig out of rubble. They fear that this remote village centered around shrimping, clamming and scalloping won't be able to spring back.

As he sifts through the wreckage of the store he runs, Dennis Buckley said he is going to do his part to make sure it does.

Buckley ran a business called the Marina that offered boating supplies, motel units and spaces for RVs.

Dennis Buckley, right, surveys his property after the hurricane.
/ Saul Martinez for NPR
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Saul Martinez for NPR
Dennis Buckley, right, surveys his property after the hurricane.

The storm nearly blew it all away. Its building is still standing upright, yet its windows, doors and interior were peeled apart and spit out as hurricane detritus.

"We're not quitters. We just do one thing: Move on," Buckley said. "You can't change yesterday. You just have to go ahead and clean this up. We'll be open again."

Buckley owned four homes here along the water. The storm washed them all away.

"In this town, you have a lot of houses that were built in the last 20 years, and then you have a lot of houses that were built in the last 70 years," said Buckley's son, John Neil. "Most of the houses that were built in the past 70 years are gone."

As the long cleanup process gets underway, Buckley said those coming to catch a glimpse of the destruction should stay away.

"This isn't a spectacle," he said. "This is a catastrophe."

A miracle amid the rubble: they found their safe with $10,000

When Neil and his dad were combing through the ruins, a glimmer of hope appeared that in the moment seemed unthinkable.

He noticed something familiar atop a tremendous about of debris sitting on a ripped-apart storage shed floating in a canal: the company's safe containing $10,000.

Somehow, the storm didn't sweep it away.

"We were very lucky, yes, I was very happy to find it," said Neil in a deadpan voice, as if the totality of the grim circumstances weighed on him too much too celebrate any stroke of luck.

"It's fortunate we found the money, but look around," he said. "The journey of rebuilding in going to be long, very long."

The army reserve helps clean up a damaged property.
/ Saul Martinez for NPR
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Saul Martinez for NPR
The army reserve helps clean up a damaged property.
Damaged homes can be seen after Hurricane Idalia.
/ Saul Martinez for NPR
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Saul Martinez for NPR
Damaged homes can be seen after Hurricane Idalia.

Will Idalia forever tear Horseshoe Beach's community fabric?

The most fortunate ones in Horseshoe Beach are those like longtime resident Shari Douglas, a school teacher who splits her time between Horseshoe Beach and Lake City about an hour away.

Her family first bought property on the coast in the 1900s. Her current home was built nine years ago, and it's propped up on 18-foot stilts, which put it higher than the highest Idalia-fueled storm surge, which was forecast to be as high as 16 feet.

Douglas, like many others, heeded officials' warnings to evacuate ahead of the storm.

"I think the people leaving and just securing what they could probably saved a lot of lives down here," she said.

This church suffered a lot of destruction after Hurricane Idalia.
/ Saul Martinez for NPR
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Saul Martinez for NPR
This church suffered a lot of destruction after Hurricane Idalia.
A book of hymns was left on the floor of a church after the hurricane moved through.
/ Saul Martinez for NPR
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Saul Martinez for NPR
A book of hymns was left on the floor of a church after the hurricane moved through.

Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters no deaths from Idalia have been officially reported to state medical examiners, but two died in Florida in weather-related car crashes and another person died, in Georgia, while cutting down a tree during the storm.

The loss of life is in stark contrast to the 150 people who died last year when Hurricane Ianwalloped the state.

Officials say Idalia's the low death toll is attributable to the path the storm cut, avoiding more populous areas like Tallahassee, as it tore a ferocious path through land dense with marshy fields and deep pine forests.

While her home made it through, Douglas worries the community might not.

A major part of the population is already temporary, she said, due to seasons of fishing and the ebbs and flows of tourism, so if too many retreat for someplace else, she says it will fray Horseshoe Beach's community fabric.

"This is a community where when it's sunset everybody gets on their golf carts, or four-wheelers, or side-by-sides, and we all ride down to the point and watch sunset as a community," Douglas said. "And it's not unusual to have 100 people, 150 people down there."

And indeed 150 people gathered, that would be just about everyone. Horeshoe Beach's population is 172.

With his family business flattened, and his home here also shredded, Austin Ellison is wondering if it's worth rebuilding at all, or moving on? "It makes you think, what's next? Do you throw your hands up? What do you do?" he said.
/ Saul Martinez for NPR
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Saul Martinez for NPR
With his family business flattened, and his home here also shredded, Austin Ellison is wondering if it's worth rebuilding at all, or moving on? "It makes you think, what's next? Do you throw your hands up? What do you do?" he said.

It will take a while to recover but locals say they'll make it

Across Florida's Big Bend, a pristine stretch of land with millions of undeveloped acres of land, there are so many towns like Horseshoe Beach, tight-knit communities vital to the state's fishing industry, which could be disrupted by the storm bringing so many fishing operations to a halt.

Driving along the muddy roads on his ATV, resident Dennis Miller, who operated a now-demolished park-and-sleep camp for fishers, looked at a neighbor's home that that storm ripped to shreds.

"Nobody down here seen nothing like this. This is a lot worse than Irene was," said Miller, referring to the 2011 hurricane. "It's going to take us a while to recover. We'll come back. It'll be slow. But we'll make it back in."

Damaged homes in after Hurricane Idalia on Thursday in Horseshoe Beach, Fla.
/ Saul Martinez for NPR
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Saul Martinez for NPR
Damaged homes in after Hurricane Idalia on Thursday in Horseshoe Beach, Fla.

As he drags water-logged furniture out of his home, shrimper Levi Spivui acknowledges that the damage is stunning, but that may just be the cost of residing on the coast.

"Ah, that's part of living in Florida. That's what it gonna be," Spivui said. "You're gonna live here on the coast that's what's gonna happen."

Seafood business owner Austin Ellison said if people do visit during the rebuild, he has one request.

"They get a 2-by-4, just bring it to 262 Main Street," said Ellison, reciting the address of the site his family's business once stood.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Austin Ellison sits and stares at his damaged property after Hurricane Idalia.
/ Saul Martinez for NPR
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Saul Martinez for NPR
Austin Ellison sits and stares at his damaged property after Hurricane Idalia.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.
Saul Martinez