Hurricane Michael stifled plans for the Port St. Joe High School Class of 1988’s reunion.
Hitting just two days before the group was set to meet, those who had plans to come down canceled flights and those who were already in town boarded up their windows. But they didn’t stop texting each other.
In the days following the storm, Melissa Watson, who lived in Nashville at the time, remembers the group chat blowing up.
“My classmates and I had decided we’re not having our reunion at this point, and we were talking all night, the next day, checking on our friends and family… I said, you know what, we’re talking over each other. We’re repeating the same thing over and over again,” she said.
“We need to have a group — somewhere where we’re getting this information all together.”
Watson took to Facebook, familiar with the social network after using it for her insurance job.
She set up a group — appropriately named Port St. Joe Strong — where she and her classmates could share information, or maybe connect with their friends and family who had stayed in town for the storm.
By the next day, the group had about 1,000 members.
“What was happening is people were not getting a lot of information, or when they were, they wanted to get it when they needed it,” Watson said. “So it was kind of working out that they were using it. Initially, it was for all of us on the outside to communicate and figure out what was going on. But it really became a way for people inside to go connect and find information.”
That was how the Facebook Group, which now boasts more than 18,500 members, was first started, said Watson as she sat at a table at Dagwoods Delicatessen on Reid Avenue.
From time to time, she would wave at someone as they walked past. She moved back to the town several years ago to help care for her aging parents, and as she has, Port St. Joe Strong has taken on a new role in the town.
Now, the group has become a hub for members of the community, visitors, property owners and former residents to share information with one another and ask questions about local politics, events or other happenings.
The change happened organically, said Watson.
And facilitating the group, Watson said, has become almost like a full time job, though she doesn’t do it alone.
Watson has the help of a few other locals, who help to monitor posts for factual accuracy and community guidelines.
By far the most difficult part, Watson said, is ensuring that the group serves its purpose without becoming a soundboard for complaints and profanity.
“I’ve always had an unwritten rule — If Temple and Sharon Watson couldn’t read it, it wouldn’t go on in there,” she said, referring to her parents.
The group also has clearly defined guidelines which new members must agree to before they are permitted to join. Watson said posts to the group are carefully monitored for their adherence to these guidelines.
When asked why she puts so much effort into moderating the posted content, Watson said that she knows the group paints a larger picture of Port St. Joe for the outside world.
She wants to make sure that the message conveys the love that she and other members have for the community here.
“I grew up here, so I care what people think,” Watson said. “It matters to me what the tourists think of our community. It’s difficult to blend locals, longtime locals, new locals pre-storm, new locals post-storm, regular tourists who’ve come for years and years, tourists who’ve come a few times, tourists who’ve come once, snowbirds, property owners.”
“There’s 3,500 actual residents in the city, but there’s a lot more people here at any given time, and showing the positives that come from that blending is important.”
Those who wish to become members of the Port St. Joe Strong Facebook group may do so by visiting https://www.facebook.com/groups/642405986154624.