By Joel Shangle - November 21, 2018
PORT SAINT JOE, Florida – The turkeys are in their brine at the Tharp household in Port Saint Joe, Florida, the day before Thanksgiving. That sounds pretty normal, doesn’t it? But for Major League Fishing pro Randall Tharp and his wife Sara, “normal” is something to be especially thankful for.
Forty-two days after Hurricane Michael hit landfall at Mexico Beach, Florida, just northwest of Port Saint Joe, the Tharps are spending the day before the holiday hanging ceiling fans and sheetrock, gradually fixing, rebuilding, and cleaning up the mess from a storm surge that brought 6 feet of water from the Gulf of Mexico into the bottom floor of their home.
“The reality is that things won’t be back to ‘normal’ in this area for quite a while, but Sara and I are pretty thankful for where we are right now,” Tharp admits. “We look around us and we see houses and boats up in the woods, and so many people who lost everything – we’re less than a mile away from total destruction. There are people down here who are just trying to survive. All things considered, we got really lucky.”
The Tharps’ was just one of the thousands of households that were evacuated in Port Saint Joe and the surrounding area on Oct. 9, the day before Michael hit the Panhandle with 155 mph winds; the storm dissipated as it continued north/northeast through Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, but it wasn’t until two days later that Tharps were able to weave their way back through tree-littered roads to their neighborhood to find out that they still had a home to go back to.
“I just had a sick feeling for those two days,” Tharp admits. “The first day we tried to get back down here from the hotel we were staying at in Dothan (Alabama), we couldn’t get through – the woods were all snapped off 10 feet up and blocking the road. Chaos was already starting to happen. We finally got a photo from our neighbor where we could see that the house was still standing, so that was a relief. But I didn’t really believe anything until I saw our house with my own eyes. And the minute we pulled into the driveway, we started sizing things up: ‘We have a LOT of work to do’.”
And fortunately for the Tharps, they had the friends to help them do it.
Fellow MLF Bass Pro Tour angler Gerald Spohrer and his girlfriend Maggie Deville arrived almost immediately from Louisiana, Spohrer hauling a tractor, generator, and tools. So did Charles Abshire, whom Tharp had befriended when Abshire served as a marshall on the Bassmaster Elite Series.
Working from daylight until dark, they shoveled sludge and mud from the Tharps’ flooded bottom floor, cleared trees, hauled debris and allowed Tharp – a former contractor – to make some initial assessments on the damage.
“We spent the first two full days shoveling muck, but that bottom floor looked like it had just been turned upside-down in a washing machine,” Tharp says. “We cleared trees on Day 3, and finally started to tear out sheetrock and insulation by Day 4. I can tell you this: If we didn’t have Gerald, Maggie, Charles, and friends to help us, we’d be in near the shape we are today. It took a lot of time to even get to where we could wrap our heads around all the damage, but we would’ve been way worse if we didn’t have these great people around us.”
It’s been slow, steady progress since. While contractors rebuild walls, rewire electrical – on Day 19, the Tharps celebrated the return of their electricity – and replace necessities like water heaters and air conditioning, the Tharps have rebuilt and replumbed the outdoor shower, rehung doors, repaved the pool deck and replaced gates with their own two hands.
And Randall has started the meticulous process of rebuilding his tackle room, a 20- x 10-foot space on the flooded bottom floor where nearly 100 percent of both his bass and saltwater tackle was housed at the time of the hurricane.
“I had a bunch of tools and all of my tackle from the (2018) season in plastic bins that I’d emptied into that room,” Tharp says. “I had custom shelves, custom rod storage and a workstation where I could work on baits – a fisherman’s workroom, I guess you’d call it. I had just about everything I own in those bins, and to be honest, I kinda neglected looking at my tackle room for a few days because I knew it wasn’t going to be good.
“A lot of those bins had handmade baits and stuff that was pretty painful to lose, because I can’t replace those. Some of that old stuff that I’d carry from place to place and never let go of otherwise, because that’s important stuff to me. I won’t lie, that stung.”
But with the 2019 MLF Bass Pro Tour season looming, the Tharps are eager to get back to work with the business of fishing. Randall plans to spend as many days on the water as possible in December, practicing for the Bassmaster Classic, breaking in his boat and motor, and resetting himself for the upcoming season.
“I’m itching to just go fish,” he says. “We’ve been working on the things we usually work on in the off-season – ordering tackle, getting the boat and truck in order, all that – and I’m excited about what we’re about to start with MLF. We’ll have a good Thanksgiving with (longtime friend and MLF reporter) Rob Newell and his family, and then start to get our minds back on fishing. I’m looking forward to it.”