October 9, 2018 / 10:29 PM / 2 months ago

Tourists abandon Florida Panhandle beaches as Hurricane Michael nears

DESTIN, Fla. (Reuters) - The boardwalk in the resort town of Destin was nearly deserted on Tuesday, the shops and adjoining restaurants closed less than 24 hours before Hurricane Michael was set to slam into this stretch of Florida’s Gulf Coast famous for its white beaches.

Michael will make landfall on Wednesday, likely a little further down the coast around Panama City Beach, a family-friendly resort town edged by white-sand beaches and dotted with hotel towers, mini-golf courses and oyster restaurants. [nL2N1WP09B]

“The town is quieter than I have ever seen it,” Dan Rowe, president of the town’s marketing organization, Visit Panama City Beach, said in a telephone interview.

Northwest Florida as a region attracted nearly 17 million visitors in 2016, or 15 percent of total tourists in the state, according to Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing arm.

Panama City Beach is primarily a summer destination, but was emptier than usual for an October afternoon, Rowe said, with many local restaurants closed up for the storm and journalists and camera crews among the few customers at hotels that were staying open. Michael is forecast to be the most powerful hurricane to hit Florida’s Panhandle in a decade.

After past hurricanes eroded the town’s photogenic beaches, millions of dollars were spent replenishing and raising them.

Officials spent $14 million two years ago to add some 900,000 cubic yards of sand dredged up from the ocean floor, Rowe said. Sand dunes, which provide a natural barrier to beach erosion and flooding, have been restored and strengthened with sea oats, a tall native grass.

“We have been through big storms before and we have rebuilt,” Rowe said.

Depending on the scale of clean-up efforts, officials would decide later in the week whether to cancel Oktoberfest, a celebration of craft beer scheduled for this weekend.

In Tallahassee, the state capital about 25 miles (40 km)inland from the Gulf Coast, hotels were filling up with some of the residents who followed evacuation orders issued in at least 20 counties, according to Gary Stogner, the senior marketing director of Visit Tallahassee.

“We’re a bit inland and out of the fray,” said Stogner, adding that he still expected high winds to pummel the city. He worried about the city’s famous southern live oaks draped in Spanish moss, and predicted not all of them would survive.

Phones in tourist businesses across the region rang unanswered, or redirected to voicemail messages saying they would be closed for the storm. “Be safe, mariners,” said the recording greeting callers to the Panama City Marina.

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At a Tallahassee hotel, Lou Bassett was trying to make the most of having his family’s beach vacation in Cape San Blas abruptly curtailed as he unloaded sandy strollers and luggage from his car while one of his sons looked on grumpily.

His wife and two sons, along with his sister and her baby, had managed to get in a couple of days on the beach before having to weigh whether to follow a mandatory evacuation order.

“There were people ignoring it,” Basset, a 47-year-old sales manager from Atlanta, said. “But the fire chief was leaving town, so that was a pretty good indication that we should get out of there.”

Reporting by Jonathan Bachman in Devin, Devika Krishna Kumar in Tallahassee and Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Jonathan Allen; editing by Bill Berkrot

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