In storm's aftermath, heart of small community beats strong

Tina Harbuck

WEWAHITCHKA — They may be small in number, but they’re big in heart.

The residents of Wewahitchka, home of the Dead Lakes and Tupelo Honey, took a beating from Hurricane Michael but they are well on their way to getting back up and running.

The small fishing town of Wewa, located on the Chipola River about 25 miles east of Panama City and 20 miles north of Port St. Joe, found themselves caught in the cross-hairs of the hurricane.

“It was a rough one. I don’t want to see another one,” said City Commissioner Johnny Paul.

Paul, who has lived in Wewa for 59 years, said he’s never left for a hurricane. However, Michael may have changed his mind.

“If there’s an old thunderstorm coming up now … I might leave,” he said.

Paul, like most in the area, stayed in his home on State Road 71 across the street from Rich’s IGA and listened to the wind blow steady for about three hours, ripping shingles and tar paper off the roof. At one point, he said they got so scared they moved into the bathroom of their home.

“The wind was pure sucking the water out of the toilet,” he said.

When it was all said and done, the Pauls had roof and water damage to their home as well as trees down, like most of the town.

But as soon as the storm blew through, the people of Wewa came together and started sorting out their homes and their community.

“People grabbed chainsaws … it wasn’t planned. They all just went to work,” said City Commissioner Charlie Pettis. “People with tractors started clearing roads … some people were not even from here.”

Pettis said most houses in Wewa got some kind of damage, however, the main infrastructure of stores and city buildings is mostly intact.

However, a lot of the huge oak trees and pines that make Wewa so quaint have fallen down. Lake Alice Park, which is home to the Tupelo Festival, has limbs down everywhere.

Wewahitchka Elementary School on East River Road has trees down and is missing the awning where children unload in the morning.

Just beyond the elementary school is the Wewa Gator football field, where the bleachers were mangled by the storm and tossed into the middle of the field. As for the baseball/softball complex at the high school, it suffered at the hand of Michael as well. The high school itself has roof damage on the backside of the building.

Nevertheless, the Gulf District Schools are looking to get back on track.

“On Monday we’re going to try and get (teachers) back and checking in … the ones who are available to come back,” said Bill Carr, assistant superintendent.

Carr said they hope to be able to have students back Wednesday.

“It’s going to be different,” he said, noting they may have a split schedule.

But they are trying to get some kind of normalcy back for the children, he said.

In the meantime, Pettis said Wewa got water back and up and running on Wednesday and they hope to have electricity this weekend.

“People are helping everywhere,” Pettis said as tears welled up in his eyes.

“And they just keep bringing stuff in and our people need it,” he added as he helped to unload a trailer that had just backed in at the old high school gym on Main Street. The old gym is being used as a drop off center for canned goods, water and supplies.

“I can’t speak good enough about our local people and the people coming in,” he said. “And I can’t thank the people of Destin and Santa Rosa Beach enough (for bringing in everything from water, ice, food and more)." The need is great, but the heart of the little fishing community still beats strong.

“We appreciate everything coming in,” Pettis said.