Palm Valley fatality among impacts of Hurricane Irma on St. Johns County


The fatality of an elderly woman in Palm Valley is one of several consequences of Hurricane Irma that St. Johns County officials shared in a press conference Monday afternoon.

St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar said the fatality occurred when an elderly couple in Palm Valley attempted to protect themselves from the water, and one of the people died from a heart attack. The sheriff’s office has identified the deceased as 75-year-old Barbara LaFountain. No other details regarding the incident have been released. Shoar said, overall, Palm Valley has sustained significant damage from the storm. 

“Far worse than what we experienced in Matthew in that part of the county,” said the sheriff about Palm Valley, adding that the area has sustained water damage and downed power lines.

St. Johns County Administrator Michael Wanchick said the county is hoping the Palm Valley fatality will be the last they have to report as a result of the hurricane. 

Overall, Wanchick noted the damage that St. Johns County has sustained due to Irma is as bad if not worse than what was seen with Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. He said the county is experiencing coastal erosion and flooding in low lying areas, as well as addressing downed trees and power lines. Approximately 85,000 residents, or almost half of the people living in St. Johns County, are without power, Wanchick added. He attributed these results to the combination of over a foot of rain that fell upon the county and wind gusts in excess of 70 mph.

“We felt we were going to see more county-wide damage, and that’s exactly what’s playing out at present time,” Wanchick said.

Shoar elaborated upon Wanchick’s statement, saying that the county is dealing with an event that will transcend many others they’ve confronted in the past.

“Matthew was our frame of reference, which was mostly an event that impacted the barrier islands and coastal areas,” said Shoar. “This particular storm impacted the entire county. From the northwest to the northeast to the southwest to the southeast…Nobody was spared.”

Shoar also said in the press conference that Vilano Beach and St. Augustine Beach have sustained “heavy devastation.” The sheriff added that downtown St. Augustine is experiencing flooding that is as bad as he’s ever seen it in the 37 years that he’s been in the job.

“It’s the worst case scenario,” he said.

Wanchick stressed that bridges to the barrier islands will not be reopened until Tuesday at the earliest. He said the Federal Department of Transportation has to inspect the bridges before they can be reopened, and that inspection can’t happen unless wind gusts are 30 mph or less. Shoar added that the bridges will not be reopened until the county has reached every person in need on the barrier islands. The bridges in question include the Usina (Vilano) Bridge, Bridge of Lions, O’Connell (312) Bridge, SR 206 Bridge, Shands Bridge and Palm Valley Bridge.

Both county officials encouraged residents to stay in the safety of their homes and off the roads while first responders address the impacts of the storm. Wanchick said those residents of St. Johns County who evacuated outside of the county should not return until officials give an “all-clear.” He said this is especially true for coastal areas and downtown St. Augustine, which he noted, again, experienced “heavy weather conditions.” Wanchick added that all shelters remain open, even though they’re currently experiencing a lack of resources.

Shoar said the curfews from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. for the City of St. Augustine Beach, the City of St. Augustine and portions of St. Johns County lying east of the Intracoastal Waterway on the barrier islands, are still in effect.

Shoar called the overall situation a “herculean” task that will require synergy and collaboration to mitigate moving forward.

“We’ve got a catastrophic, statewide situation,” said Shoar, who noted that the county will have less resources than last year with Matthew due to the wide-ranging impacts of this storm across Florida. “Now’s the time for everybody to rally around the flag pole and help each other.”