Jody Griffis planned to face Hurricane Idalia alone in his marina, hunkering down on the third floor of the waterfront structure in Steinhatchee.
Anxious, excited, uncertain and confident all at once, he said if he felt like he was in danger, he’d hide in his elevator. He wanted to see how the building, completed in last year with pilings driven 40 feet deep, holds up.
“I’ll see how it works. If I’m here. Hopefully, I’ll be here,” he said, laughing nervously.
The stay-or-go dilemma played out across Florida Gulf coast communities in the state’s Big Bend on Tuesday, where a powerful hurricane threatened to tear through a quiet slice of Old Florida — in a fast-dwindling number of hours. In these small villages, where neighbors scoot around in golf carts and often know each other by first names, Idalia’s potentially devastating fury and flooding were expected to arrive not long after dawn on Wednesday.
Tucked away behind swaths of long leaf pine trees, 10 to 20 miles from the nearest highway, multiple generations of families make their living on the same water that threatens to swamp their neighborhoods in a dangerous storm surge whipped up by the hurricane.
“I’ve rode a lot of storms out, hurricanes and stuff, and this one right here’s got me kind of scared,” said Timmy Futch, a shrimper who lives in his grandaddy’s homestead in Horseshoe Beach, a small village that juts out into the Gulf of Mexico. On Tuesday afternoon, he and some neighbors had just returned from taking three of their boats to Apalachicola, out of the storm’s path. Hopefully.
As he picked up extension cords and buckets from a dock in the center of town, Futch and his family had not decided if they would evacuate. As gusty squalls began to wash over before sundown, he said they’d make the call once they were done cleaning up.
A Dixie County Sheriff’s deputy said emergency officials counted about 15 people who said they were staying in Horseshoe Beach, and another 20 in nearby Suwannee. People trickled into Dixie County High School, a Red Cross shelter, as the sky darkened.
For some, leaving was an easy call.
“It’s not the wind. It’s the water,” said Brian Smith, a charter boat captain in Steinhatchee, as he packed his car. After keeping a logbook of forecast changes and examining wind charts, he decided this hurricane was too dangerous to stay in his one-story home. Him, his wife and the dogs were heading to the panhandle.
Down in Cedar Key on early Tuesday, Nancy Pelham watched workers pull up planks from a walkway at the Harbour Master Suites hotel and shops, one of several wooden structures on concrete pilings lining Dock Street, a narrow stretch of road bound by a lagoon and the gulf. Removing several planks would allow rising tides to gush through instead of ripping them up, like what happened during Hurricane Hermine in 2018.
Pelham left to join famiy in Rosewood, about 8 miles inland, where she’d spend the night.
“This one’s probably the worst. I’ve been here 55 years,” she said — her whole life.
Back in Steinhatchee, Griffis said goodbye to family and friends who were going inland to weather the storm in Cross City. The 72 boats at Steinhatchee Marina at Deadman’s Bay were removed from the water. The picnic tables were all gone from the waterfront bar. Griffis seemed to understand the stakes full well, especially after seeing how storm surge devastated Fort Myers Beach and nearby communities during Hurricane Ian in 2022. Nearly 150 people died in that storm, many from drowning in the catastrophic storm surge.
Many longtime residents still talk about surviving the 1993 “Storm of the Century,” a no-name March cyclone that brought nine to 11 feet of storm surge and tornadoes to the Big Bend.
Idalia, a rapidly strengthening hurricane, could be more dangerous. Up to 15 feet was predicted for the Big Bend.
“Based on the size of the storm, I think we’re going to get hammered,” Griffis said. Still, the captain was staying with his ship. At a nearby motel, workers and the owner planned to ride Idalia out, too.
Read more: Hurricane Idalia expected to be an ‘extremely dangerous’ Cat 4 when it makes Florida landfall
Down the street at the Steinhatchee Lighthouse of Prayer, Pastor Robert Carter boarded up the windows with his wife Gail. He stopped to say a prayer and told reporters to direct people looking for help to his church once the the coast was clear. He pointed to the red and white sign in front of the building emblazoned with phrase “Everyone’s Welcome” and the church’s phone number, 352-464-4300.
“Tell folks that after the storm’s over, “ he said. “if there’s any way this church can be of service, call that number.”