Local businesses bounce back after Hurricane Irma


Hurricane Irma delivered a big blow to beach businesses across Florida, but many businesses along the First Coast were just relieved it wasn’t worse. Mandatory evacuations forced several to close for the weekend, but it was back to business for most of them in the days after the storm.

Maria Messer, owner of beachfront Sea Shells & Souvenirs, reopened her store on Wednesday, Sept. 13, and was just glad to be able to have a business to come back to.

“We were very blessed,” Messer said. “We [Jacksonville Beach] were evacuated, so now we’re just waiting for everyone else to come back.”

Messer said last Thursday that people have been returning to the shop, but it’s a slow time of year regardless of the storm. She said they did the best they could to prepare the store, and she reiterated how fortunate they feel, given what happened in other places.

At The Pier Cantina and Sandbar in Jacksonville Beach, clean up was still ongoing last Thursday, but restaurant manager Mike Llanes noted that the damage was minimal. The restaurant did what it could ahead of the storm, bringing in tables and locking everything up. But Llanes said considering where the restaurant is located, there weren’t any big surprises for the business after the storm.

“You always have to prepare around here,” he said.

South of Jacksonville Beach, the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club was also forced to close, but the beachfront luxury resort also had minimal damage. Debris in the pool, and windows needing to be resealed, were the biggest impact on the hotel and lodge, said Ponte Vedra Corporation spokeswoman Misty Skipper. She also said the resort was more impacted by Matthew than Irma, and the business had prepared accordingly.

“Like many businesses, we have a robust hurricane plan which ensures that we prepare for an impending storm,” Skipper said in an email. “This includes backups for technology, communication with employees and guests, assisting in guest evacuations, if necessary, as well as physical items such as removing outdoor furniture, boarding large windows and placing sand bagging doors.”

Jax Beach Surf Shop was one of the first Beaches businesses to open after Irma, and owner Tony Hall said his business actually benefited from the large waves churned up by the storm.

“We sold a lot of leashes for surfboards,” Hall said.

Hall has owned the shopwhich sells and rents beach bikes, surfboards, beach gear and other beach-related itemsfor five years at his current location. He put out sandbags and boarded up, but said the worst part of the storm was simply having to close over the weekend, which is his busiest time of the week. He also said he had several supplies and the knowledge of what needed to be done after having dealt with Matthew such a short time ago.

In addition, Hall noted that the storm wasn’t the only concern he had. Hall said he was also concerned about possible vandalism or looting. But he commended the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office for doing a great job of alleviating those fears. Despite the lost weekend, business bounced back quickly for the surf shop.

“It’s back to normal,” Hall said. “We even got a little boost from people who are having to hang out here because their power is off down south.”

Beachfront business in the area may have fared better than those on the river or near canals due to the flooding caused by Irma.

Beachside Embroidery and Monograms, located on Canal Boulevard in Ponte Vedra Beach, flooded along with other businesses in the shopping center.

Kelli Votaw, owner of Beachside Embroidery and Monograms, had been considering leaving the storefront to work from home for personal reasons, but the flooding forced her hand.

Votaw said her business and others in the shopping center put up sandbags ahead of the storm, but they weren’t enough to stop Irma’s floodwaters.

“You prepare as best as you can and you hope for the best,” she said.

But Votaw, a Louisiana native, understands the risk of working and living near the coast and on the canals.

“It’s just part of the deal, I guess,” she said. “You can always learn something from each storm. It’s no one’s fault. It’s nature. It happens.”

Votaw said she’s thankful to be able to work out of her home and plans to continue her business through her website and Facebook page. But she was also grateful for the opportunity to have had her store in its previous location and said it was a positive experience overall.

 “It’s a great space,” she said. “This shopping center is a great retail space. The store grew more here than I could have imagined. The pros far outweighed the one time it flooded.”

And despite the damage her store sustained, Votaw said she’s still thankful and doesn’t want to lose sight of what really matters.

“People are more important than things,” she said. “A lot of people had it much worse. I consider myself lucky and blessed that it wasn’t worse than it was.”