From our snowbird perspective up in Pennsylvania, last year was a double downer year for the Apalachicola-Eastpoint region.
A devastating woodlands fire left nearly 40 Eastpoint families homeless. Then October's Hurricane Michael left nearly everyone hit or hurting in one way or another.
From afar, we saw that via TV and the Internet. But on our Feb. 1 return trip, we saw a refreshing "upper," the faith, optimism and irrepressible good humor of the people along this stretch of the Forgotten Coast.
We don't live here, never have. But for six years, my wife and I have sojourned here to escape Pennsylvania's cold and snow. We came for the warmth of the weather, and have grown to identify with the warmth of the people we encountered in restaurants, stores, bars, during walks and bike rides and in church. Some have become friends. Many more nod and smile, "Y'all some of them 'Y’inzers' from near Pittsburgh, aren'cha?"
So it grieved us to see and read about the fire and the hurricane at a distance, something of a two-dimensional experience.
Last week, that experience became three-dimensional. Coming down Highway 98 near Lanark Village, we saw the Gulf — and the debris. We felt the bumps and jolts along passable-but-patched Route 98.
My first reaction was sadness at what had been burned, blasted or bent. But even before we reached Apalach proper, we encountered smiles, waves, "How y'all doin'?" the same friendly welcome that keeps us coming back here year after year. That attitude evokes our admiration.
To our touristy eyes, some yards and streetscapes look unexpectedly clean, almost too clean. "Spring cleaning on steroids" seems to have cleared nearly every twig and branch from yards that, normally not so naked, are almost embarrassingly open to public view.
Except for those clearly smashed beyond repair, many homes don't look vacant. Rather, not-completed repairs suggest families not fully moved in or fully moved out.
At the Family Dollar, still closed for hurricane renovations, the "Family" part of the sign is gone, but the "Dollar" part remains. Make of that what you will. The Piggly Wiggly supermarket sign's penultimate "g" is garish, its red neon underwear exposed beneath a ripped-away cover.
Looking like small dinosaurs, yellow loaders flex backhoe buckets to dig and unclog.
Above ground, tarps, rubbers and plastics stanch the mold-inducing ruination of water seeping through leaky roofs, colored blue, green and white, even silver and red.
We can relate to the roof tarps. Our roof in Pennsylvania is tarped until spring, its 150-year-old slates worn so that water seeps beneath small cracks. Replacement tiles and underlayment wait on our porch swing for no-rain, no-snow days and above-50 temperatures.
When we left on Jan. 30, our temperature was 4; that night, it dropped to minus-13, with a 40 mph wind roiling our rooftop tarp.
Here, we are told, the warmer temperatures are both boon and bane: Boon because there is no snow to shovel, bane because without humidity-cleansing electricity or weather tightness, there is mold to fight.
This area's roof woes, ranging from daunting to disastrous, make our small seeps seem minuscule. Yet we also know how it feels to stand helpless while water does its damage. And we have suffered floods from creeks and rivers.
Yet the streets and roads are cleared of trees and debris. Some buildings are done for, killed by fire or by Michael. Others are coming back. Bright planks and fresh paint attest to that. A store moves from here to there, a new restaurant replaces one shuttered for five months.
To us, nobody appears to cuss, frown or grumble. Perhaps some people do. Those are normal human attributes in times of stress.
But we see smiles and hear chuckles. "You're from Pennsylvania, aren't you? Sorry about those Steelers last season."
License plates from numerous states dot the landscape. Last year, in two months here, we counted plates from 47 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces.
This year, in just four days, Friday through Monday, our count is up to 30 states and one province: Quebec, Massachusetts, Washington, Tennessee, Virginia, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Indiana, Georgia, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Kentucky, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Maine, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, New York, Ohio, Alabama, Nebraska, West Virginia, Arkansas.
By our vacation's end, we anticipate a nearly complete set, augmented by the vehicles of workers drawn from near and far.
A lot of people come back here, year after year, again and again.
We did gawk and gasp, as tourists will do, at the results of last year's fire and hurricane. But we also smiled, as snowbirds do, at the upturned grins, outstretched hands and "How y'all doin'?" greetings.
I recall the cult classic movie, "The Big Lebowski." Jeff Bridges' character calls himself "The Dude." Asked at movie's end what he plans to do, his response is memorable: "The Dude abides."
So do you folks. You surely did get smacked, and hard.
You are bearing up beautifully.
Denny Bonavita is a former editor and publisher at daily and weekly newspapers in western Pennsylvania. He winters in Apalachicola. Email firstname.lastname@example.org