It has been six weeks since Hurricane Michael blew through north-western Florida and tore apart the Ward family’s waterfront oyster processing house and dock. The deadly storm’s 155mph winds also ripped roofs and sidings from Mark Zaslavsky’s caviar-producing sturgeon farm and destroyed beehives at Carrie Morthland’s Panama City Honey Company.
On their own, they are anecdotal tales of the impact the strongest storm ever to strike Florida’s Panhandle has had on individual lives and livelihoods. But together they paint a picture of the significant challenges that lie ahead for several food production industries in the worst-affected areas, many of which will not be fully operational again for months, if not years.
“Normally at this time of year with oystering season, we’d be looking at 100 people easily,” TJ Ward, co-owner of the 13 Mile seafood company based in Apalachicola, said of the number of workers he would normally employ to handle the annual harvest.
“With our boats and deck crews right now it’s 25 to 30 people. It’s the lowest it’s been since the 1950s.”
Ward acknowledges that Michael, which killed dozens of people during its October sprint across Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, is only one reason for the wild oyster industry’s struggles. Environmental pressures, not least the lingering impacts of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, had already significantly hampered the $3m-a-year statewide business, contaminating oyster beds and forcing many, including Ward, to focus increasingly on farming.
“In the oyster industry generally times are absolutely horrible, it’s just been devastating,” he said of a commercial enterprise that a decade ago was pulling in three million pounds of wild oysters a year, compared with a few hundred thousand today, partly due to stricter bag limits.
But Ward, whose family have been harvesting Apalachicola Bay oysters for four generations, says they must now build again “from the bottom up” after the destruction of their oyster house. The storm surge crumbled the adjacent dock and sent more than four feet of water and mud swirling through the building, tearing off walls and destroying the giant coolers where the oysters were stored.
“You don’t want to give up on a tradition when it means so much to you and we’re going to rebuild the oyster house ourselves. But to get it completely right you’re looking at the summer of next year, with certain things contractors need to do to get it to where it was,” Ward said.
The Wards’ story is familiar to many in areas badly hit by the storm and reliant on harvesting the sea.
With many boats damaged in the storm and Panhandle shrimp operators largely out of communication, if not action, not a single shrimp landing was reported from Florida in October, according to the Southern Shrimp Alliance. It contributed to the lowest monthly Gulf of Mexico shrimp haul since records began and paints a bleak picture for the immediate future of the industry.
Meanwhile, other food production businesses around the Panhandle are also facing challenges as they struggle to recover. The eye of the storm swept right over Bascom, a tiny town in inland Jackson county, and home to Zaslavsky’s Sturgeon Aquafarms, among the biggest producers of farmed Beluga caviar in the country.
“We had structural damage, lost all the [sturgeon tank] covers, all the wood and metal sidings in the hatchery, part of the roof metal. For a few hours it was hell,” said Zaslavsky, a Russian businessman who set up the farm in 2009 “to bring the Caspian Sea to a backyard in Florida” and decrease a reliance on imported caviar.
Yet it was not so much the wind damage as the loss of electricity and failure of back-up generators at the peak of the storm that caused the farm to lose almost all of this and next year’s caviar harvests.
“We trick the fish by lowering the water temperature and it feels like it’s going to the spawning grounds. But when the hurricane struck we didn’t have electricity to run the chillers to take care of the wellbeing of the fish,” he said.
“When you change the temperature the fish start absorbing eggs and if a fish is late to the spawning ground and it’s warm already it’s too late to spawn. It doesn’t come back for two years, so it’s thrown us back one and a half years to two years for some fish.
Zaslavsky said he is determined to build his business back up and protect his dozen employees. “It’s a huge financial impact but we look on the bright side – nobody was hurt at the farm and nobody died here because of the hurricane.”
For the area’s commercial bee farmers, the storm has been costly in terms of destroyed hives, lost insects and what will be a dramatic decrease in honey production, especially of Tupelo honey, a regional speciality.
Large numbers of white Tupelo gum trees were felled in the Apalachicola and Chipola river basin areas of Gulf and Liberty counties, removing vital food sources the bees need to survive.
“The bees are mostly OK, but the big thing is how the trees were affected,” said Morthland, secretary of the central Panhandle beekeepers association, whose own honey-producing business was hit. She and her husband are living in an RV so they they can continue to take care of their bees.
“We are still taking losses.”
According to Jamie Ellis, professor of entomology at the University of Florida, the Panhandle is home to about 500 commercial beekeepers and more than 1.2 billion honeybees, which also play a crucial role in the pollination of blueberry, cucumber and watermelon crops.
The Florida state beekeepers association has set up a GoFundMe appeal to support affected keepers.