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2020 hurricane season offers no relief for communities still recovering from Michael, and now Covid-

For small communities still recovering from Hurricane Michael, and now waiting on the Covid-19 storm to pass, the forecast for 2020’s upcoming hurricane season doesn’t offer much hope.

Weeks after Hurricane Michael, a pile of debris on the beach was all that remained of the oceanfront Cape Shoals condominium building on Cape San Blas, while a few homes in the background remained standing through the storm. Photo from David Babcock, Cape San Blas home owner.

Weeks after Hurricane Michael, a pile of debris on the beach was all that remained of the oceanfront Cape Shoals condominium building on Cape San Blas, while a few homes in the background remained standing through the storm.

Photo from David Babcock, Cape San Blas home owner.

Only 18 months since Hurricane Michael’s devastating blow, the Covid-19 pandemic is making recovery that much harder as beaches were closed to the public and vacationers told to stay away. Now, forecasters say they expect above average activity for the 2020 hurricane season, which may spell disaster for some businesses already struggling to build themselves back up.

Greg Matney owns Scallop Cove general store and gas station on Cape San Blas, one of the small Gulf County communities impacted by Hurricane Michael. And now, like for other tourism-dependent economies, Covid-19 is beginning to take a toll.

“We’re still in the middle of this. It’s not as bad as a hurricane, yet. But we’re not done with it and that’s the big unknown. God forbid we have this, and then another hurricane. It would be devastating, to put it mildly,” Matney said.

The 2020 hurricane season is only about a month away from picking up speed, and AccuWeather is forecasting a busy storm season, predicting 14-18 tropical storms in the Atlantic Basin, according to a news report from the organization.

AccuWeather’s 2020 Atlantic hurricane season forecast calls for 14 to 18 named tropical storms, with 7 to 9 of those becoming hurricanes, and 2 to 4 of those hurricanes impacting the U.S., according to their March 25, 2020 report.

Original graphic by Michelle Babcock

If their prediction is correct, it would be the fifth consecutive above-average year, including the 2018 season that spawned Hurricane Michael, a devastating and deadly category 5 storm.

Executive Director for Gulf County Tourist Development Council Kelli Godwin said after Michael, many local businesses needed loans to help stay afloat and make repairs. According to National Hurricane Center reports, storm surge reached 9 to 14 feet above ground level in Gulf County, and Michael caused $25 billion in damages, with most destruction along the Gulf of Mexico.

Now with the Covid-19 virus bringing a halt to tourism, Godwin said businesses and the community as a whole are being hit with another wave of financial hardship at a time when many business owners are still trying to rebuild their homes and businesses after Michael. If another hurricane hits Gulf County this year, Godwin said the recovery would be mentally and financially draining.

“It’s something I’ve never experienced, and a lot of people in the business [of tourism] a lot longer than me haven’t experienced,” Godwin said. “I do worry that some of our small businesses may not be able to recover and rebuild again, especially if they already have a loan out.”

Easter had always been one of Scallop Cove’s best days for sales, Matney said, but with no tourists this year, the shop closed on Easter Sunday for the first time.

“We’d been expecting a really great season this year so we stocked up on stuff for the bait and tackle shop. Spring break started really good, and January and February started off well because of so many construction workers working on repairs,” he said. “Since they enacted the beach closures and no more vacation rentals, we’re down about 80% in daily sales.”

Matney hopes that by following recommendations for social distancing and pausing tourism now, Gulf County will weather this Covid-19 storm and open back up to visitors before too long.

But with the 2020 hurricane season forecasted to have above average activity, it’s possible that Covid-19 may not be the end of hardship for small coastal communities like Cape San Blas. Matney said the thought of the 2020 storm season potentially spawning another bad hurricane is “almost unimaginable” after what the community went through with Hurricane Michael.

“Hurricanes are like Russian Roulette,” he said. “We’re praying for the best this year.”

The only road onto St. Joseph Peninsula, where Cape San Blas is located, was washed away by Hurricane Michael’s storm surge, leaving the community only accessible by boat immediately after the storm passed.

Photo from Greg Matney, Scallop Cove Owner, via Facebook

When Hurricane Michael hit Cape San Blas, a narrow peninsula only a quarter mile wide in most places with the bay on one side and the ocean on the other, the storm surge washed away the only road in or out of the community, leaving it accessible only by boat immediately after the storm. Despite this, Scallop Cove managed to reopen within 24 hours of the storm passing.

“When we evacuated, we left a spare key and a pontoon boat with a good friend of mine who’s the volunteer fire chief,” Matney said. “There were 20-some people who weathered the storm out here… so he called me the day after the storm and asked if he could open up the store. We started an I.O.U. system and people took what they needed.”

Four days later, Matney was able to get back to his family’s shop, where for eight weeks they had the only operating fuel pumps in the entire south part of Gulf County. The store itself suffered minimal damages, but several warehouses full of stock were lost.

“The inside of the store proper didn’t flood, we had maybe a quarter-inch of water in it,” Matney said. “But our warehouses all had about four feet of water. All of our freezers, rental gear, all of the back stock was destroyed. We had 8 or 10 freezers full of deli food and bait, that got ugly.”

The Scallop Cove store after Hurricane Michael. With damage to the gas pump awning, some exterior cosmetic damage, and minimal flooding inside, the store was able to open up 24 hours after the storm for those in need.

Photo from Greg Matney, Scallop Cove Owner, via Facebook

Debris piles lined the streets of Cape San Blas and other hard hit areas for months after the storm, and Matney said it took two or three months before the freezers full of rotting food and bait got picked up by a garbage service. “You didn’t want to be downwind from them,” he said.

Because they were able to reopen so quickly and visitors returned, Matney said Scallop Cove and the rest of the community had been on the road to recovery. Now with tourism on hold because of the virus, the future for these still-recovering businesses is once again unsure.

But Matney is positive visitors will return as soon as it’s safe to travel again. He believes the community will get through this new challenge with the same resiliency that got them through Hurricane Michael, and Godwin agreed.

“We have such great visitors. I have no question that people will want to come back. It’s an affordable vacation to take, and people are going to have a pent-up desire to travel after this,” she said. “I feel like we’re going to be overwhelmed in a great way, and I hope our businesses will be able to make up for what is lost. We’re ready to be on the other side of it.”

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