Local officials reflect on the wrath of Hurricane Irma, compare impacts of storm with Matthew


With more than a week of storm recovery efforts to reflect upon, St. Johns County Administrator Michael Wanchick told the Recorder that he believes Hurricane Irma will prove to be more damaging for the county than Hurricane Matthew.

“With Irma, we saw more pervasive county-wide damage,” he said. “If I were to guess before I’ve seen all the final damage assessments, I would say it was more damaging.”

Wanchick explained that Irma, like Matthew, resulted in beach erosion on the barrier islands and flooding in low lying areas like Downtown St. Augustine and the adjacent Davis Shores community. Unlike Matthew, however, he said Irma left the county with heavier inland damage in places like Hastings and Flagler Estates, as well as more structural damage and downed trees and signs due to the higher winds that characterized the storm.

St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office (SJSO) Commander Chuck Mulligan agreed with Wanchick’s assessment on the higher winds, which he noted were sustained at approximately 80 mph, compared to peak winds during Matthew that were sustained at approximately 65 mph. The SJSO spokesman said Irma, unlike Matthew, produced three confirmed tornadoes that touched down across the county, including one in Crescent Beach reaching 130 mph that was responsible for significant damage to condos at the Summerhouse Beach & Racquet Club.

As for rainfall, St. Johns County’s Director of Emergency Management Linda Stoughton confirmed that Irma produced more than 17 inches of precipitation over the four days of the storm, which included the nor’easter that preceded the hurricane. On the other hand, she said the greatest amount of rainfall seen during Matthew was in Bakersville, where approximately 9.9 inches of precipitation fell.

St. Johns County Fire Rescue Public Information Officer Jeremy Robshaw said both Irma and Matthew will leave “forever impacts” on the community and agreed with Wanchick’s characterization of Irma as a more county-wide event, compared to Matthew’s more localized impacts.

“It’s created a challenge where you now have to provide that level of recovery and emergency response throughout the entire 680 square miles, versus just being able to focus on specific areas,” said Captain Robshaw.

As for that recovery, Wanchick said he’s been proud of the county’s response. He said the county’s prior investments in training and equipment have proven to pay a huge dividend, such as the county’s emergency operations center and its recently built $26 million radio system that was installed during the “Great Recession.”

“That system has played out flawlessly,” said Wanchick. “If you ask anyone who’s a first responderfederal, state or localthat system was a real life saver.”

Overall, the county administrator stated that there’s also no substitute for an experienced and cohesive staff, which he believes wholeheartedly exists in St. Johns County, especially after dealing with Matthew last year.

Moving forward, Wanchick said recovery from Irma will take months, explaining that the process requires mitigating several federal, state and local regulations, as learned over the past year with Matthew.  

As a result, he is asking for the community’s cooperation.

“This kind of event puts a tremendous burden on local government,” said Wanchick. “It’s almost like you open up a second business with no additional staff, in addition to running the day-to-day operations of local government that we do 365 days a year.

“Hopefully people will be patient. They’ll let us prioritize what’s most urgent, which I think is storm recovery right now, and allow us to transition back into more day-to-day activities over a period of time.”