Named for the trees that once covered the islands, Cedar Key, Florida, is located about four miles out in the Gulf of Mexico and connected to the mainland by a single road that crosses over four small, low bridges.
Its isolation is part of its appeal. With just 800 full-time residents, the island town bills itself as a “haven for artists, writers and ‘adventure’ tourists, who find the unspoiled environment their inspiration.”
It’s no haven today.
Hurricane Idalia brought record-high storm surge that flooded much of the island, lifting up and tossing old homes into the Gulf, strewing the streets and beach with chairs, microwaves, hairdryers and other debris and inundating much of the waterfront commercial district. There is no power, no water and no sewage, Cedar Key Fire and Rescue said Wednesday night, although the power was restored overnight.
Even so, early warnings, a mandatory evacuation order and a population that knows the island’s notable hurricane history prevented any loss of life. And now the rebuilding begins.
“It was a difficult evening and a difficult morning,” Michael Bobbitt, a resident who stayed behind during the hurricane, told CNN’s John Berman on Wednesday night. “But seeing everyone out cleaning up the streets and checking on their neighbors, it’s a little bit of a silver lining to a really tough situation.”
Photos on the Cedar Key Fire Rescue Facebook account showing some of the early destruction. Ocean water had flooded well past the edge of the island, tossing lawn furniture and deck chairs into the street. Propane tanks were blowing off all over the island, adding another hazard, Cedar Key Fire Rescue posted.
Bobbitt said it was “heartbreaking” to see the destruction of so many buildings and old villas. Yet, he said the community was doing “surprisingly well,” all things considered.
“My neighbor’s house across from me was submerged to the roof line, but we had no injuries,” he said. “We’re here. We’ll rebuild. We’ll do what Cedar Key does. All in all, I feel incredibly blessed.”
Indeed, the cycle of destruction and rebuilding is part of regular life in Cedar Key, located as it is in the hurricane-friendly warm waters of the Gulf. An unnamed hurricane destroyed the island in 1896, and Hurricane Easy ripped the roofs off most of the island’s buildings in 1950.
Cedar Key was once the terminus of Florida’s cross-state railroad and a busy port city. The famed naturalist John Muir visited in 1867 as part of a thousand-mile walk to the Gulf and wrote of the beauty of the place.
“For nineteen years my vision was bounded by forests, but to-day, emerging from a multitude of tropical plants, I beheld the Gulf of Mexico stretching away unbounded, except by the sky,” Muir wrote. “What dreams and speculative matter for thought arose as I stood on the strand, gazing out on the burnished, treeless plain!”
(He also contracted malaria in Cedar Key and recovered there for several months.)
Its days as a bustling port city are long gone. Now, visitors can enjoy the beach or one of the other natural hobbies like fishing, bird-watching in the nearby refuge and kayaking. And unlike Key West, Cedar Key has avoided high-end commercial development along its shores and remains a low-key spot.
Its main businesses are tourism and aquaculture – in particular clams. A sign at the entrance to the town states: “Welcome to Cedar Key: #1 Producer of USA’s Farm Raised Clams.”
With its warm waters year-round, Cedar Key produces over 125 million clams annually, about 90% of Florida’s clam crop, said Leslie Sturmer, a molluscan shellfish aquaculture researcher at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences based in Cedar Key, according to CNN affiliate WUFT.
Levy County issued a mandatory evacuation order Monday for people living in coastal communities like Cedar Key.
Not everyone did so. Mayor Heath Davis estimated Tuesday that close to 100 people were not heeding warnings to evacuate. He urged people to leave and warned that emergency services would stop when winds reached 39 miles per hour Tuesday night.
“And it is imperative that our citizens realize that we’re very serious about that. We can’t allow our employees, our staff, and in this case, because our community is so small, our friends and our family go out into the storm as bad as it’s going to be and put people in danger,” he said.
In the end, it appears only a few people decided to stay behind as Idalia bore down. Bobbitt was one of them.
“We’re starting to see an almost apocalyptic scene here,” Bobbitt told CNN This Morning on Wednesday morning. “The Gulf is rising up to swallow up the boat ramp, and Dock Street, where all of our popular tourist restaurants and shops are.”
Bobbitt said he decided not to evacuate so he could help some of his elderly neighbors who weren’t able to leave. He was able to help an elderly couple evacuate before the roads flooded and cut the island off from the mainland.
“We’re out of power,” he added. “The storm surge has overwhelmed our downtown, our Dock Street, our boat ramps, the bridges on the way into town. It’s going to be a while before anyone will be able to get on or off the island. We’re effectively cut off from the world now.”
Heather Greenwood, the manager of Cedar Key Bed & Breakfast, told CNN’s Erica Hill on Tuesday that while she was concerned about the storm, she was not going anywhere. She said she wanted to provide a place for news crews to stay and wanted to help others staying in town.
“I’m here and I’m available to help them as much as I can,” she said.
In pictures: Hurricane Idalia
Greenwood said they were at the highest point on the island and they had everything secured. Bathtubs were full of water in preparation and she had plenty of drinking water and food in stock, she said.
Those who evacuated had to rely on photos and videos from others of the destruction and were disturbed by what they saw.
“Everything is flooded,” Shely Boivin, the manager of a beachfront motel in Cedar Key, told CNN. “I’ve seen pictures of the tide coming in. The water is just – it’s everywhere.”
Boivin said she had considered staying in Cedar Key to ride out the storm but decided against it.
“Everyone was telling me, ‘Don’t do it,’ and I’m kind of glad I didn’t now,” Boivin said. “From the pictures that I’ve seen, the whole town is flooded.”
She said she saw pictures of a nearby building with a pavilion that just washed away, along with a swing and picnic tables floating down the street. Some residents were worried about the older houses in the area, she said.
“They’re wondering if the waters are just going to pick up the foundation and just send them down First Street,” Boivin said.
Levy County Emergency Management Director John MacDonald told CNN areas like Cedar Key had “a lot of” water damage but avoided the worst.
“For the most part it could have been a heck of a lot worse,” he said.