In 1975, Hurricane Eloise became the first Major Hurricane to strike Florida since Hurricane Betsy in 1965. The storm made landfall near the Bay County/Walton County line as a Category 3 storm. It made landfall just to the west, by about 15-20 miles where Hurricane Michael is projected strike in the next day.
A note on the geography – Seaside didn’t exist in those days and Destin was sleepy beach town. Fort Walton Beach and Panama City did get tourists in limited fashion, mostly from within the state or the south, but nothing like today.
Eloise was a damaging Hurricane. The most intense storm to hit the state of Florida between 1965 (Betsy) and 1992 (Andrew), it brought Hurricane force winds from Fort Walton Beach through Panama City and a storm surge as high as 18 feet. damage was extensive, with most buildings in the region damaged and many outright destroyed.
“Cottages, motels, restaurants, convenience stores and other beach businesses were strewn across the highway in a tangle of down power poles, lines and busted mains,” reported The Tallahassee Democrat at the time.
Much like Michael’s projections the worst damage and winds were just to the east of the center – in the Panama City and Panama City Beach. The tourist industry in Bay County as well as the fishing industry took a hit from damage to structures, beach erosion and the extensive time and cost of cleanup.
Eloise did cause a rethink in building codes and zoning, something that was vogue in 1970’s Florida, the “Golden Age” of the state politically. Forward thinking leaders like Governor Reubin Askew made the state more capable of coping with blows like Eloise and what Michael will provide with smart executive action and legislative proposals. On Eloise, Askew said “I think we’re going to have to take a long, close look at some of the construction. Some of the structures simply won’t be able to be built back in the exact location where they were.”
In contrast to the aftermath of Eloise. we’ve chronicled how some leaders in this state have dithered after previous storms most recently Hurricane Irma. Let’s hope if Michael brings anything positive to this state it’s a renewed call to fix what’s broken with Florida’s readiness, infrastructure and constant need to overdevelop coastal areas.