Seafood Festival organizers announced Thursday they had canceled the weekend's events due to the threat of Tropical Storm Karen. Once the storm has passed, they will evaluate the possibility of rescheduling the 35th annual festival for later in the year
“To step up to the plate and not be able to swing the bat, it’s devastating …” said festival organizer Capt. Jim Green of the hundreds of volunteer hours put in to make the festival successful.
Mike Eller, who heads The Destin Charter Boat Association that sponsors the event, said the cancellation was the hardest decision he and his fellow organizers have made in their entire lives. Eller said they are now focused on preparing for the storm and getting through the weekend.
"We may all be moving our boats Saturday afternoon, because in Destin, Florida, when we have a named storm coming, the marinas make you move your boat," Eller told The Log. "After the weekend, we are going to take a hard look at the calendar."
Eller said his first thought was to reschedule the Seafood Festival to the first weekend in November, but the possibility of rescheduling depends on several factors lining up, including damage done by the storm, the ability to get all 12 property owners on board for a chosen date, booking entertainers and getting enough vendors with mutual open dates on their calendars.
"For many vendors, this is their biggest festival of the year," Eller said. "They book their events in advance like we do. So it's possible that if we decide we are going to pick another date, half of the vendors may already be in another festival somewhere else in the southeast United States."
It wouldn't be the first time the Seafood Festival was rescheduled due to weather. In 1995, Hurricane Opal hit the coast Oct. 4, just days before the event was scheduled to begin. The Chamber of Commerce organized the festival that year. They rescheduled the festival and held it Nov. 17, 18 and 19. The first night included a hurricane relief benefit concert.
"It certainly wasn't as big an event as it was planned to be that year, but we had it," said Helen Donaldson, who worked for the Chamber in 1995.
Mayor Sam Seevers pointed out that this year's cancellation came one day short of 18 years after Opal, a Category 4 hurricane that devastated much of the Emerald Coast. When the festival took place more than a month later, the storm cleanup was far from over.
"We held it on the destroyed docks along the harbor. There was actually a big pile of debris right behind us," Seevers said. "We felt like we really needed to pull it off because everybody was so down after the storm. It really brought a lot of joy to the community."
The festival means a lot to the local economy. Organizers predicted more than 60,000 visitors and locals would take part in the festivities. Shane Moody, president and CEO of the Destin Area Chamber of Commerce, said local businesses will be hurt by the loss of such a big event.
"This is such a popular weekend. We receive calls year-round about the Seafood Festival weekend, so people can plan their vacations and their quick weekend getaways around it," Moody told The Log. "So I think the businesses will feel a hit. More importantly than that is just the tradition of the festival. It's such a great event and so important to the community. I really, really feel for the organizers of the event."
For now, Emerald Coast residents can focus on staying safe through the storm. Eller said Seafood Festival organizers will likely make a decision early next week as to whether or not they will reschedule the event.
“What I’ve been telling people is let the dust settle, and right now the dust is about at my chin,” Green said.
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