SUWANNEE COUNTY — As Hurricane Idalia neared the Apalachee Bay coastline last Tuesday night, John Slone II and his family decided to flee their house in rural McAlpin and take shelter away from the big oaks that surrounded it.
They rode the storm out at his sister’s house in nearby Buckville, which was boarded up and clear of any immediate threat from falling timber. As Idalia knocked down trees across the road, they took bets on which one would fall next.
Once the hurricane passed, the Slones headed back, zigzagging past debris in the the road before arriving to eye-opening destruction on their wooded four acres. Beyond massive, fallen live oaks, a large turkey oak had toppled over onto the house, gouging a jagged hole in one side and flattening the master bedroom.
“It could have been worse,” Slone said Thursday as he and his family cleaned up around their house on Highway 129. “It could have been a hole in my head.”
Five million chickens dead as farmers reel from Idalia damage
Idalia made landfall Wednesday morning near Keaton Beach, some 70 miles south of the Slones’ property in Suwannee County, laying waste to parts of the coast with record storm surge and leaving a path of wind destruction well inland.
In Suwannee County, the hurricane knocked down trees and power lines from Live Oak, the county seat, to Branford, a small town on the Suwannee River, and unincorporated towns in between. It dealt a severe blow to the county’s agriculture industry, its chief economic engine, leaving farm equipment, fences and crops in shambles.
Larry Sessions, city manager of Live Oak, estimated that Idalia killed millions of chickens and that an untold number would have to be euthanized. The storm wrecked numerous chicken houses and knocked out electricity to cooling fans, leaving them to die in the heat.
Cattle farmers fared somewhat better, said Sessions, who raises beef, though some animals were killed by flying debris. Meanwhile, thousands of acres of peanuts could be lost in the field because without power, there’s no place to take them to dry and sell.
“The impact here will be billions of dollars because the infrastructure that these farmers have plus the crops they have in the ground for their livelihood — it’s all affected,” he said.
The county saw a succession of visits by elected officials, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, who deployed the Florida National Guard to give out food, water and supplies, Congresswoman Kat Cammack, R-FL, and state Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee. President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden stopped in Live Oak on Saturday, surveying the damage and meeting with first responders and U.S. Sen. Rick Scott.
“No winds had hit this area in 100 years,” said Biden, standing across the street from the Church of God in Christ. “Pray to God that it’ll be another 100 years before this happens again.”
During a Friday visit to Suwannee Riverside Elementary School, DeSantis said power had been restored to nearly 480,000 customers hit by Idalia but that about 84,000 remained without power, many served by electric cooperatives. As of Tuesday morning, about 25% of Suwannee County is still in the dark.
“We have all these other linemen that are here that can help the electrical cooperatives get those folks back online in places like Madison, Hamilton, Suwannee and Taylor counties,” DeSantis said. “It’s very important that we have all hands on deck for that mission.”
‘It looked like a bomb went off’: Busy Bee becomes a Live Oak lifeline after Idalia
A day after landfall, Suwannee County had one of the highest reported rates of power outages in the state, with 97% of customers in the dark. That improved to 70% Friday as repair crews, tree trimmers and others descended on the county.
The Suwanee Valley Electric Cooperative, which serves Suwannee, Columbia, Hamilton and Lafayette counties, said Friday that crews had found 2,500 damaged lines and pieces of equipment, including 411 broken poles. Nearly 600 line workers were operating out of its base camp in Live Oak and more were arriving, bringing the number to over 750 and counting.
“The damage done to SVEC’s system is unprecedented and so is the scale of our response,” said CEO Mike McWaters. “Nevertheless, it’s still impossible to predict when power will be restored to specific areas.”
More than 87% of the cooperative’s customers in Suwannee County were without power, representing some 16,300 homes and businesses. In Hamilton County, 100% of its customers were down, and in Lafayette County, nearly 98% were offline. FPL and Duke Energy, which have fewer than 6,000 customers in Suwannee County, reported outage numbers at 100 or less by Saturday.
A day after landfall, most businesses remained powerless and closed, though the Publix and Walmart reopened, along with a KFC, a Dairy Queen and a few other restaurants and gas stations.
Off Interstate 10 and Highway 129 at Live Oak, the Busy Bee swarmed with customers Thursday as lines of vehicles backed up for fuel. The gas station turned tourist attraction, which was running on generators, boasts 36 pumps, a Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts, a gift shop, exotic jerky, fudge and more.
Meagan Tripp, the store manager, said it had been especially busy in the day and a half since Idalia made landfall, with 10,000 or more customers stopping in. The store, which suffered only minimal sign damage, closed for only a few hours Tuesday.
“We’re always busy, but it’s a different kind of busy after a storm,” she said. “We get a lot of first responders, linemen, all those people coming through here. They’re really looking for hot food right now and an air conditioner.”
Tommie Jefferson, a Live Oak City Council member, spoke with residents as he got a quick bit to eat inside.
“It looked like a bomb went off in my area,” he said. “Trees down, power lines down. We’ve lost some houses around the city. All the roads are being cleared up. Some are still shut down. The city of Live Oak, we got hit pretty hard.”
‘It’s going to take time to bounce back’
In Dowling Park, a farming community in the eastern part of the county, Idalia wiped out chicken houses, barns and fences. Tammy Starling said she and her husband, Sammy Starling, who raise cattle and row crops, lost two hay barns and 400 acres of fences to the hurricane, which left their thousand-acre farm a “war zone.”
None of their cattle got out, though the Starlings had to move them to a more secure 40 acres on their farm. Because of downed trees and lines, they haven’t been able to check on their peanut, corn, pea and sweet potato crops.
Just to the north, Pilgrim’s Pride, the largest poultry production plant in the region and a major employer, shut down after losing power, Sessions said. He added that Idalia flipped over 30 large pivots, used to irrigate crops, on one farm alone.
“It hit ag terribly bad,” Starling said. “It’s messed crops up. It’s messed chicken houses. People have dead chickens all over the place, live chickens out of the barns.”
Sessions estimated the number of chicken deaths at 5 million. Kirsten Rabin, a spokeswoman for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said experts won’t know the “whole picture” of losses until assessments are conducted, a process that could take weeks, it not months.
Numerous trees that fell on Starling property will have to be cleaned up. But she was grateful none hit her house.
“We’re very blessed and very humbled that we’re still here,” she said. “Because it’s bad. It’s going to take time to bounce back. It’s going to take years probably.”
In McAlpin, the Slones spent Thursday taking a chainsaw to the tree on their house and burning pieces of it in a fire next to its unearthed roots. John Slone II’s two teen-aged sons, John III and Frankie, a son-in-law, Austin Hill, and a friend, Elijah Brannan, banded together to lift and toss heavy logs into the flames.
The elder Slone, who plans to fix the uninsured house himself, pulled debris away in a tractor, giving a ride to his 2-year-old granddaughter, Kinley, whom he held in his arms. He and the rest of the family, including his wife, Mindy, and daughters Kylie and Tara, remained upbeat, joking as the work went on.
“It just ain’t my year,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do — just smile and move on.”
How to help
With Tallahassee escaping the brunt of Hurricane Idalia’s wrath, this story is part of a continuing series profiling hard-hit communities. Contact Jeff Burlew at email@example.com or 850-599-2180.