Hurricane Idalia spilled Sunset Beach’s sand through the streets

TREASURE ISLAND — The day after Hurricane Idalia whipped past Sunset Beach, those fine, pale grains of sand that make this region famous were spread all over the streets in uneven layers.

The storm chewed up the dunes and spilled them into beach parking lots, in some places making the asphalt indistinguishable from the shoreline.

The Sunset Beach neighborhood is a sliver of land that sticks out from the rest of Treasure Island, where an unusual number of trees give the community an intimate, wooded feel.

Residents went through a post-flooding ritual that is becoming more familiar with each storm. Squeegeeing floors, throwing out soaked furniture, taking mental notes for next time.

“I thought the gradual elevation of the seas would take place a little more slowly,” Mike Hebert, 58, not really joking, said as he cleaned the wet kitchen floor of the duplex that he rents. 2020′s Tropical Storm Eta had flooded him, too.

“Six inches less and we’d just be sweeping up the porch.”

He knows if and when this area is hit directly by a hurricane, the duplex will be totaled, and a higher, more expensive building will take its place. But he’ll live here as long as he can afford it.

His living room wall is dominated by a photo of him and his wife standing under an arch on their wedding day on the beach just down the way.

Several streets over, Stephanie Hudgins went one by one, carefully cleaning her grandmother’s china.

Wipe. Paper towel. Wipe. Paper towel.

Her twins were still at school as she and her husband worked to save whatever they could from their flooded garage. The water had swept into the lower level of their rental home, soaking boxes of mementos, spare furniture and a couple thousand dollars worth of tools.

She knew the kids wouldn’t be happy to come home from school and see their ruined toy kitchen in the trash.

Their family had evacuated before Idalia. Hudgins watched their Ring security camera feed as milky water surrounded their house about 3 a.m. Wednesday. When they returned, they saw the water line was about a foot and a half high.

“The longer the water sits, the worse it gets,” Hudgins said. So they worked fast.

A construction worker in a polo walked up her driveway, introduced himself and handed over a business card.

He was the fourth one that day.

A few hundred yards away, sand blanketed the road.

“Half the beach is gone,” Hudgins said.

The beach is why they live here.

Idalia had done little to cool anyone off. The sun was still high and hot. The feels-like temperature: 95 degrees.

Nearby, a beachside tiki bar was full of people cooling off with a drink. Still standing was a sign proclaiming that the neighborhood is “Livin’ on Island Time.”

The waves were high late Thursday, despite the sunny skies.

Even though the city had closed the beach parking lots, more than a dozen surfers unloaded their boards and paddled headlong into the waves.

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Tampa Bay Times hurricane coverage 2023

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7 lessons for the 2023 hurricane season from Hurricane Ian.