Devastation and Recovery

March 23, 2020  •  1 Comment

San Blas Light_From The BeachSan Blas Light_From The Beach

Cape San Blas Lighthouse -

Mariners needed to be warned of the shoals that projected out from Cape San Blas located in St. Joseph's peninsula on the Gulf side of Florida. So in 1847 Congress appropriated $8000 to the effort of erecting a lighthouse. The original light was a 85 foot tall conical brick tower designed to warn sailors some 10 miles out into the hurricane stricken Gulf of Mexico. But the story of this particular lighthouse would continue for another century and a half.

In 1851, the first tower was destroyed by a hurricane. Then in 1857 a new conical brick tower was again erected. This time the tower was devastated by the Union troops from the USS Kingfisher war ship in the early years of the Civil War burning out all the wooded parts, including the staircase and the keepers quarters. The locals had hidden away the lens, the oil and other tools nearby for future use. In July of 1865 the lighthouse regained its operational status.

But like a relentless enemy, by 1869 it was very obvious the gulf was taking its toll of erosion in and around the light tower. In 1875 there was only 150 feet left of beach and by 1882 the base of the tower was standing in 8 feet of salt water.

It came to pass in 1883 that a new skeletal tower was needed which could withstand the fierce winds off the Gulf.  So it was that 1500 feet from the high water line was the spot for this new steel framed high tower. The tower had eight steel framed legs and a concrete foundation pedestal. The center cylinder of the tower housed a small, claustrophobic circular stairway to access the lantern room at the top of the tower. The concept behind the design was that the tower was more light weight and would not sink into the soft sand and the tower could now forcefully withstand the high winds of the storms. The tower withstood the storms but unfortunately could not overcome the constant erosion of the Gulf storm surges. In 1885 the new 98 foot tall tower was lit. By 1890 only 144 feet remained of the beach and the tower was again in danger. In 1894 another Gulf storm damaged the tower and left it in standing water. This condition remained until in 1916, with yet another hurricane storm causing more damage, plans were made to move the tower inland. The tower had been fitted in 1905 with a French made third-order Fresnel clam shell type lens design that allowed the light to be seen 16 miles out to sea, it indeed was a useful navigational aid that saved many a mariner in this part of the Gulf Coast of Florida.
Then in 1919, the tower was relit in a new inland location where it remained until 1952 when the Coast Guard took possession of 1/3 of the Cape San Blas peninsula or what was left of it and the light station was then used for a manned LORAN ( long range navigation ) station. In 1972 it was automated. 

By 1999, the U.S. Air force took possession of the light tower and the keeper dwellings and made significant restoration efforts. The Light Station District was closed by the Air Force in 2012 due again to rapid erosion of the Gulf coastline. In February 2013 the nearby township of Port St. Joe, located about twelve miles to the north, received possession of the lighthouse and the keepers dwellings. New iron screw type piling foundations were installed for the tower to be located in the local park and in July 2014, the city relocated the structures after having moved it up Highway 30A unto Highway 98 to their city park where the structures were to be preserved in perpetuity. The US Coast Guard still owns the third-order Fresnel lens used in the tower.

Hurricane Michael in October of 2018 again devastated the entire area in and around Cape San Blas, Port Saint Joe and Panama City Beach to the north. Tyndall Air Force base located just 12 miles east of Panama City Beach also sustained significant damage. The "eye" of the Category 5 hurricane passed directly over Tyndall AFB.

Beach Highway 98 was rendered in accessible as a result of this storm with significant loss of sand dunes, pavement, sink holes and surf erosion. Hundreds of coastal beach homes were destroyed or significantly damaged. The Cape San Blas light tower having been relocated to Port St. Joe survived with only minimal damage. The Keeper's dwellings however suffered damage that needed major repairs. As of March 2019, the structures were again opened for visitors. 

Having travelled through this area of Florida in February 2020, I personally saw the devastation from Category 5 Hurricane Michael still apparent 18 months later. What was originally categorized as a Category 2 hurricane grew into a Cat 5 with hours on October 18, 2018. Foundation concrete stilts still remain in place but without any house structure above. Roof and siding panels ripped off homes, condominiums and forests of trees for as far as the the can see snapped in two about twenty feet off the ground. Highway 98 is repaired and rebuilt for the most part but still showing signs of sinking and erosion. Highway reconstruction is still ongoing. It is estimated it will take 8 to 10 years for full recovery, if ever. In Panama City, the mayor approximates that about 10,000 residents have permanently relocated out of the area due to Hurricane Michael. The hurricane caused 45 deaths either directly or indirectly with a total recovery cost of about $25.1 billion.

 


Comments

Elizabeth Lonseth(non-registered)
Beautiful photo! Great Story.
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