Hurricane Matthew hammers First Coast

St. Johns County sustains billions in damage but no loss of life

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Massive flooding, severe property damage, extensive erosion. Hurricane Matthew roared onto the First Coast last week as a Category 3 storm, unleashing devastation along the coast but moving on from St. Johns County with no local loss of life.

The first major hurricane to hit the Jacksonville area in more than 50 years, Matthew brought down trees and power lines, flooded streets and damaged more than 600 structures, washing away the very ground beneath many oceanfront homes and causing damage estimated to be in the billions of dollars. But well-orchestrated emergency management, public safety and storm recovery efforts, many residents say, spared the region from the fatalities Matthew has left elsewhere in its wake.

Storm warning

St. Johns County residents began preparing in earnest for Matthew’s arrival Wednesday, Oct. 5, as downpours and strong winds heralded the approaching hurricane. At the Publix in Nocatee, residents scoured the parking lot for stray shopping carts and filled the aisles, stocking up on bottled water, ice and other staples. By mid-morning, the store’s bread aisle was completely bare.

Later in the day, St. Johns County issued a mandatory evacuation notice for residents living in zones A and B. Duval County also issued an evacuation notice for the Beaches communities, while St. Augustine issued a mandatory evacuation notice for the entire city, as the fire chief warned residents that if they chose not to evacuate, they would be on their own.

The exodus had begun.

Preparations

By Thursday morning, storm preparations were well underway. As storm shutters went up, businesses closed and coastal residents began to evacuate, emergency management officials opened numerous shelters across St. Johns County. Residents not in evacuation zones, meanwhile, were pleased to find that stores such as Publix had already restocked their shelves.

“This is fantastic,” Lori McVicker said Thursday at the checkout counter at Publix. “I was here late last night and they were out of everything. They have done a fantastic job of restocking.”

While Hurricane Matthew was the first serious storm for some local residents, even longtime residents weren’t taking any chances.

“We’ve been here since ’83,” Walden Chase resident Blake Zitiello said. “But we’re taking this (storm) a little more seriously.”

By the afternoon of Oct. 6, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry had expanded the city’s mandatory evacuation and Gov. Rick Scott issued strong warnings to residents not to underestimate the deadly potential of Hurricane Matthew.

“This storm will kill you,” Scott said.

As the emergency shelter at Pedro Menendez High School reached capacity, the county opened additional shelters and a curfew was issued beginning at 8 p.m., at which time water and sewer services also were to be suspended to all barrier island evacuation zones.

At 7 p.m. Thursday evening, with Matthew 100 miles east of Palm Beach and still unleashing Category 4 winds of 140 miles per hour, Gov. Scott warned that the storm would likely cause storm surges in excess of 11 feet. He reiterated his call for anyone still remaining in the mandatory evacuation zones to leave immediately.

“We want everyone to survive this horrible storm,” he said. “We can rebuild businesses; we can’t rebuild a life.”

Across the First Coast, meanwhile, residents remaining in their homes began to connect on social media, keeping tabs on who in their neighborhood was remaining and offering to assist one another as the storm progressed.

Matthew arrives

In the wee hours of Friday morning, Oct. 7, many residents awoke with a start as their cell phones issued the alert warning: “Hurricane approaching. Seek shelter now!”

Throughout the day, the First Coast was slammed by Hurricane Matthew. Bridges to the barrier islands were closed and fallen trees and power lines left many residents without power. Along the coast, Matthew’s storm surge flooded homes and cities, with downtown St. Augustine and Jacksonville Beach hit particularly hard by the storm’s ferocity.

According to JEA, more than 245,000 of its customers were without power at the height of the storm, and residents outside of the evacuation zone hunkered down, keeping in contact online via their cell phones.

By Saturday, Oct. 8, however, Matthew had moved on and recovery operations were already underway, as utilities companies worked to restore power and relieved officials reported no fatalities.

“It’s a new day, Jacksonville,” Curry said. “Over the past 72 hours, we have experienced an event that the weather experts in our community have not seen.”

As officials announced that bridges to the barrier islands would reopen at noon, Atlantic Beach Mayor Mitch Reeves praised those residents who complied with the emergency management directives.

“Our number one heroes are the people who evacuated,” Reeves said. “You made the right decision, and you’re coming home.”

Three dozen mutual aid crews from across the state and outside of Florida came to assist in the recovery operations, as power was restored. As water and sewer service was restored to the barrier islands, residents were advised to boil water as a precaution through Oct. 10.

In those coastal areas that suffered the most damage, officials went house to house inspecting for damage, with more than 600 properties marked as sustaining damage from the hurricane. The Salvation Army established mobile food trucks in five county locations, distributing hot meals and clean-up kits to affected residents.

As clean-up and recovery efforts continue, many residents expressed praise for the way local and state officials responded to Hurricane Matthew.

“Kudos should go out for the excellent service and response,” Rich and Mary Ann Woods wrote to the Recorder.

Many Nocatee residents also commented on the lack of flooding the community experienced – a fact that developers The PARC Group credited to the master-planned community’s design.

“In the vision and design of Nocatee, a top priority was to build an infrastructure that provided protection to the residents from potential disasters such as a storm surge from a hurricane,” The PARC Group wrote in a statement posted on its website. “As evidenced by the dry roadways and neighborhoods post hurricane, it is obvious that Nocatee’s extensive system of preserves, drainage and pumps worked as planned.”

In the aftermath of the hurricane, the PV Municipal Service District Board of Trustees pledged to advocate for efforts to restore Ponte Vedra’s dunes (see story on page 9). The St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners also scheduled an emergency meeting to discuss further recovery efforts.

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