Cedar Key Survives Idalia, but Climate Change is Testing its Resiliency

Photo for The Washington Post by Thomas Simonetti
Cleanup efforts commence across Cedar Key, Fla., on Thursday, one day after Hurricane Idalia roared past.

CEDAR KEY, Fla. – Less than 24 hours after ferocious winds passed over this tiny town as Hurricane Idalia headed for landfall some 60 miles north, the power was back for most of the island on Thursday. The water came on before noon.

Volunteers moved boxes of records out of the flooded City Hall, scraped mud off the sidewalks, and helped business owners mop out their shops and bring plates, pots and pans outside to dry in the sun.

“It’s just friends and neighbors,” said Jolie Davis, who gave cleaning supplies and coffee to the people working with her boyfriend to get his coffee shop, the Daily Grind, open again for customers. “That’s what this town is all about, neighbors helping neighbors and just being resilient.”

But even with cleanup and restoration well underway, many people on Cedar Key acknowledge that resilience may not be enough in the future. Recent studies have shown an unusually rapid degree of sea level rise across the Gulf Coast since 2010, including on Cedar Key. Warming temperatures are making tropical storms stronger and more frequent. Storm surges are becoming higher.

Davis is a seventh-generation Cedar Key denizen. Her 112-year-old house around the corner came through the hurricane fine, as it has dozens of times. She expects it to survive many more and for the town to rebuild as it always has since it was founded in 1842.

She has just one worry.

“It’s the water,” she said Thursday afternoon, surveying the hurricane-strewn debris littering Second Street. “The water is the issue.”

Cedar Key was hit with a record 10.5-foot storm surge, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. At least a third of all buildings are believed to have sustained damage. Most houses are built on higher ground, but the waterfront business area was decimated by that surge of water. Idalia’s winds, which gusted to 64 mph, destroyed some outbuildings and awnings and knocked down tree limbs farther inland.

The people here are compelled by their isolation to be self-reliant – the island is 27 miles to the nearest major grocery store on the mainland, and there’s only a single two-lane road – with no stoplight – out of town. Some of the 800 year-round residents, many of whom come from families that have lived here since the 1850s, reject the science of climate change. But they don’t deny that the water surrounding the town is rising.

“They can’t deny what they can see with their own eyes,” said Mike Allen, a University of Florida professor who oversees the Nature Coast Biological Station on Cedar Key and lives on the island. He has hosted several well-attended public information sessions at the town community center to talk about sea level rise and the changing climate. Even among people who reject the idea that human activity is to blame, he has seen a willingness to adapt.

“On the one hand, they’re seeing the environment change, but they say that’s just a natural process,” Allen said. “But at least they acknowledge that the climate is changing, and if we can agree on that, and we can see the sea level is rising and the impacts that brings to the community, then what’s your mitigation strategy? They’ll get on board with that.”

Cedar Key Vice Mayor Sue Colson is completely on board. She paused her work assisting in cleanup coordination at the community center to jump in a golf cart Thursday afternoon and give a quick tour of one of the resilience projects the town is working on with the university. On the bayou side of the town, water was still lapping up onto the sidewalks in some spots where chairs, bottles and other trash had been pushed onto the pavement by raging water. In other places, where sea grass had been planted, the water didn’t gain ground.

“It’s a buffer, a natural, living shoreline buffer. And you can see it held,” Colson said, pointing to the bright green marsh that was slowly emerging. “You can see the difference where it is, where it held.”

She drove the cart a few yards farther.

“This guy didn’t want us to [plant sea grass]. He owns that dock, and he didn’t want to stop to let us do it,” Colson said, pointing to a dock that was wrecked by Idalia. “So now he has no dock. Living shoreline – write that down. It works. And it’s cheap, cheap, cheap. Living shoreline.”

Colson said many in the town didn’t believe the experimental living shoreline project would work.

“But it does,” she said. “Some people here, they don’t believe in sea level rise. They don’t believe in global warming. They don’t believe in law and order. They don’t believe in science. They believe in rights, and that one homeowner with the dock didn’t want it, so there you go, even if it impacts other people. It’s like the nation. It’s divided.”

Idalia tied for the strongest hurricane on record to make landfall in the Big Bend region, and it tracked quite a path as it headed northeast across the state. During a news conference while visiting the coastal town of Steinhatchee on Thursday, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) highlighted that there was only one confirmed death – a traffic fatality in another county. “People really made good decisions, protected themselves,” he said.

But the damage he saw in some communities was “heartbreaking,” DeSantis said. “When people lose a church or lose a home, or a business, it’s hard,” he said. “It’ll be a lot of hard work, but we will get everyone back on their feet.”

President Biden has already approved major federal disaster aid for affected areas of the state, noting Thursday during an appearance at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s national command center in Washington that climate change was “really kicking in.” As he spoke, Idalia was a post-tropical cyclone out to sea off the North Carolina coast. Georgia and both Carolinas were hit with torrential rains and surge-related flooding as the storm exited.

On Cedar Key, Mayor Heath Davis said Idalia was the worst storm the town has ever seen, even without a direct hit.

“In this case, it was the surge. You look around the island where the water is, those structures did not do well,” said Davis, the fourth generation of Cedar Key mayors in his family.

Davis said the people of Cedar Key have learned over generations how to work with nature rather than against it. The town is the only coastal community in Florida where farming is the main economic driver – in this case, aquaculture from clams and oysters, mostly – rather than tourism.

“When you’re working in the water, you learn to live with the water,” the mayor said. “Resiliency is a marketing term. What we’re doing is we adapt. We don’t have a lot of sea walls here, because sea walls don’t work. We have native vegetation, and we promote that. It’s that working with our environment. . . . People have been trying to beat up and kill Florida forever, and it just keeps beating back.”

Cedar Key has a funky Key West feel that many treasure. It has people such as Dan Faires, who moved here after retiring from his job as a Delta Air Lines captain. He now turns wood and displays it for sale in a local art gallery, and in the wake of the storm, he quickly salvaged a cedar tree felled in a neighbor’s yard.

“I’ll make lamps out of some of it, bowls out of some of it, small birdhouses out of it,” Faires said, his pickup truck full of 600 pounds of sweet-smelling cedar logs. “Whatever strikes my fancy.”

Yet the future will greatly challenge him and others here. The sea level around Cedar Key is expected to rise 8 to 18 inches over the next half-century, said Allen, a fisheries scientist by training. Even without destructive storm surges from hurricanes, the everyday level of water will swamp most of downtown Cedar Key.

“One of the things that makes Cedar Key unique is we have enough infrastructure here to have a fully functioning town,” he said. “There’s a library, there’s a grocery store, there’s multiple places to stay, there’s multiple restaurants, there’s a NAPA Auto Parts, there’s a mechanic. If you lose the library, and if you lose the grocery store because they just got 5 feet of water in it again . . . what does that do to a town like this?”

What will happen to the community, he wonders, were it to become “more of an outpost and not a town? Unfortunately, that’s what we’re looking at down the road. You wonder if Cedar Key can exist as we know it.”