ASSESSING THE DAMAGE: Residents return home, finding Irma spared no corner of St. Johns County

CHRISTINA.KELSO@STAUGUSTINE.COM Jon Davis, night manager of Summerhouse Beach and Racquet Club in Crescent Beach, surveys damage throughout the community on Tuesday, the day after a possible tornado within Hurricane Irma ripped entire walls and ceilings from multiple condominiums in the complex. Davis heard the winds striking as he weathered the storm from inside his own condominium, which evaded the worst of the damage.

As the sun came up for the first full day of recovery after Hurricane Irma made its run north up the western part of Florida, local families, friends, work crews and neighbors set out to see just what the coming weeks had in store for them as they began the rebuilding process, many of them for a second time in less than a year.

 

While it is too early to say whether the local damage caused by the powerful storm, that made landfall in the Florida Keys Sunday morning as a Category 4 hurricane, will top last year’s devastating flooding and wind damage from Hurricane Matthew, it was apparent Tuesday the effects of the powerful storm were felt from one end of St. Johns County to the other.

St. Augustine

On the north side of St. Augustine and in Lincolnville, people cleared debris from yards, tree branches rested on roadsides, trees had fallen in some places around town, businesses were still boarded up in some areas and some residents were just getting home.

For some, there was no damage. For others, the story was different.

“It’s our Hurricane Matthew re-do,” said Jack Martin, putting down a leaf blower outside of his home near Lake Maria Sanchez.

While his home didn’t get water damage inside, floodwaters came underneath the home. His air conditioning will need to be repaired and he estimated the street got more than a couple of feet of water.

Several blocks away, Shantel Smith considered the damage at her home while she talked with neighbors Tuesday.

Matthew damaged her family’s belongings last year, including cars, she said.

Despite preparations for Irma, flood waters invaded her home again.

“They kept saying it wasn’t going to be that bad … it’s this bad again,” said Smith, who stood alongside her neighbor, Marilyn Benitez.

Benitez said her property had mostly been spared.

“No, praise God, I’m blessed,” Benitez said, adding that she was still waiting for power to come back on. “But no water damage, no wind damage other than the shingles.”

For some, the floodwaters came close, but they didn’t do any visible damage.

Jeff and Betsy Yeomans stayed at home near the Matanzas River east of San Marco Avenue, in part because their plans to evacuate were canceled when Irma shifted paths.

Also, they were concerned about gas shortages.

The storm surge was surprising since St. Augustine was outside the direct path of the storm, Betsy Yeomans said. They had no damage to their home, but they had some scares.

“We did get nervous at one moment when I heard this crash and then I happened to look out the window,” Betsy Yeomans said. “It was actually my cat had knocked over a piece of furniture. But I looked out the window and I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ The waves were … coming in on (the back patio).”

“It was scary at times,” Jeff Yeomans said.

“They never did come in the house,” Betsy Yeomans said. “But they were close, so it was a little nerve-racking.”

Hastings and Flagler Estates

The Hastings area dealt mostly with flooding — the extent of which began to come into view as one approached the area from the northeast on State Road 207. Fields and other low-lying areas, like the parking lot outside the Hastings Youth Academy, were completely under water.

As crews from the Coast Guard, National Guard and St. Johns County Fire Rescue staged boats and other equipment between Main Street and Morrison Road, others in Flagler Estates were still trying to cope after Deep Creek ran over its banks, flooding the neighborhood in the southwest corner of the county.

Nick Colbert said he and his wife, Bonita, rode out the storm in his parent’s home and were enjoying themselves in the garage when the water started to rise.

“It started creeping under the door,” Bonita Colbert said Tuesday morning.

The two had just waded out to a dry portion of the road through thigh-deep water.

Hal Baughman was waiting there for them at the edge of the floodwaters on Flagler Estates Boulevard, so he could drive them out to the Buzzmart, the local convenience store, where they could grab more supplies.

“It will take days for this to go down,” he said as he watched the couple carry a cooler between them with their sandals stacked on top.

Nick Colbert said the manufactured home they were in is elevated and didn’t see any water inside. That, he guessed, was likely the case for many of his neighbors as well, but his car saw about five inches inside — a problem, he said, that likely trapped many.

Baughman said he has lived in the area for years, but has never seen it this bad.

“Water usually comes up over Deep Creek,” he said. “But never this far down.”

Fire Rescue spokesman Capt. Jeremy Robshaw estimated the flooding, at its height, extended four to five blocks out from either side of the north-south tributary of the St. Johns River.

“I’ve got friends using jon boats and canoes to get around,” Baughman said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Fire Rescue said 17 people and seven dogs had been rescued from homes in Flagler Estates.

Anyone in need of assistance, or who knows someone in need of assistance, in the neighborhood is asked to call St. Johns County Emergency Management at 824-5550.

St. Johns River

Fallen trees, mangled docks and down power lines were common sights on stretches of County Road 13 and State Road 13 along the St. Johns River

It was a set of problems that made the area at the western edge of the county look much as it did in the wake of Matthew as people were clearing debris from their yards, and crews were working to remove trees, large limbs and electrical lines from the roads.

Linda Haughain, whose house overlooks the river, lost a garage when a large tree came down on her property, crushing it and trapping one of her vehicles.

A neighbor, who declined to give her name, but also lost a tree that landed on another neighbor’s home, said she believed a small tornado ripped through the area at the height of the storm.

Haughain said she wasn’t sure about that, but said she did know this storm was worse for her than Matthew.

Last year’s storm, she said, took her dock, which hadn’t been replaced before Irma’s arrival. But the wind that took her tree and her garage, as well as the river’s rising waters that damaged the back of her home, was not only worse than Matthew, but any other she had seen as well.

“It’s the worst ever though,” Haughain said.

Vilano Beach and points north

On the other side of the county, residents were dealing with a separate set of problems that were also all too familiar. Just as last year, homes on the coast in Vilano Beach, and along the stretch of State Road A1A to its north, took a beating.

Irma stirred up violent seas that, again, further undermined a number of homes built over the beach, with at least one giving way completely and falling to the sand below.

The wind this year, though, appeared to be worse as the coastline dealt with the powerful east winds in Irma’s northeast quadrant.

Headed south from Ponte Vedra Beach along the coastal highway, large sections of roofs dotted the western side of the roadway where they had been deposited after being ripped from the beachside homes. Sections of other homes had fallen in completely, with their contents washed up on the beaches and into neighboring lots.

Jessica Boisseau’s home didn’t suffer either of those fates, though.

She said she, her husband and children evacuated the home they rent from her husband’s boss, and went inland.

The boss and others were there Tuesday working on the house that was still standing.

“I expected worse,” she said, as she brought lunch to the helpers.

A large amount of sand had been washed out from under the home on stilts, damaging plumbing and electrical lines, but the contents of the house remained intact, she said.

“The pipes broke out and the porch fell down,” the mother of three said.

“We are blessed. It could have been worse.”

Davis Shores and south beaches

Shortly after the bridges to Anastasia Island opened late Tuesday morning, a drive through the Davis Shores area, heavily impacted last year by Hurricane Matthew, was, perhaps, more ominous than truly telling.

Although Irma seemed to be more of a wind event than water event for much of the coastal areas of the county, the true extent of Matthew’s wrath, at least in this low-lying area, was not revealed until days later, in the giant soggy piles of furniture, personal effects and ripped out building materials on hundreds of front lawns.

Down streets like S. Matanzas Boulevard, Arricola Avenue, Coquina Avenue and Solano Avenue, there were sure signs of flooding as well as vegetative debris in the roads and strewn about lawns.

Landscaping, much of it new, replaced since Matthew, didn’t fare too well in some places. Some fences were down, others seemed untouched. There were garbage cans, recycling cans, flower pots and lawn decorations where they shouldn’t have been, but certainly not to the extent observed last October.

By about 11:30 a.m., some people could be seen dragging wet items out of their garages and sweeping mucky water out into their driveways. Others were taking photos of waterlines, not as high as with Matthew, but high enough to indicate some residents will be going through more of what they’ve been dealing with for the past 11 months.

On the other side of Anastasia Boulevard, there seemed to be more standing water in the streets, particularly around north St. Augustine Boulevard, although signs of any waterlines on houses seemed a little harder to find. A power line was down across Comares Avenue, just past The Conch House.

Anastasia Boulevard itself did not seem to bear the same signs of damage it had sustained in Matthew. It was clear there was at least street flooding, but structural damage, such as broken windows or bent-over signs, was not nearly as obvious this go around.

Heading down A1A Beach Boulevard, some structures, particularly those under construction, looked a little the worse for wear. Debris seemed minimal, considering a hurricane had passed by. Emergency sand placed at the end of Pope Road ahead of the storm appeared to have done its job.

Farther south, toward Crescent Beach, Summer Haven and Marineland, there were more obvious signs of water and wind damage.

A possible tornado or extremely high winds inflicted significant structural damage in the Summerhouse Beach and Racquet Club, and to homes on the adjacent Jimmy Mark Place in Crescent Beach.

Roofing, insulation, furniture, mattresses and personal effects from several condo units and homes intermingled in sprawling heaps along the path of destruction.

Jon Davis, night manager for Summerhouse, and his wife Tammy hunkered down for the storm and had just finished a good laugh about the fact they still had power when it went out. Jon said he remembered looking at his watch. It was 1:14 a.m.

Their eyes had hardly adjusted to the dark when what sounded to Tammy like an airplane going right over their heads took a bite out of several units across the complex, as well as some homes on the adjacent street. But they wouldn’t be able to get a good look at the damage until daybreak.

“It looked like ‘The Walking Dead,’” Jon said.

He and Tammy relocated from Maine about a year and a half ago, so they’re kind of used to extremes and, now, a little more acquainted with the tradeoffs.

“Maine is just, like, four or five months of misery, and snow and cold,” Jon said. “This down here is paradise 100 percent of the time, almost, and then eight hours of sheer terror.”

He added it was still unclear whether it was a strong gust of high winds or verifiable tornado that whipped its way through the area.

Regardless, there is a discernible path of severe structural damage extending from a couple of end-unit condos in Summerhouse, across the property, and down Jimmy Mark Place toward State Road A1A.

Longtime friends Mark and Tamie Mouro, and David and Teresa McKee are now joint owners of a beachside condo, minus a roof. David liked to refer to the gaping hole as their “new skylight.”

“Everything is mixed in with everything,” Tamie said. “It’s chaos.”

Mark said at the end of the day, they’ve had a lot of great memories at Summerhouse over the past 20 years, the last 12 of which they’ve spent as owners. He said he’ll be surprised if they don’t have to tear down and rebuild the entire second floor of their building, and that his concern now is any rain will further affect the downstairs units.

All things considered, Mark said a missing roof is more of a hiccup than the end of the world.

“It’s just stuff,” he said. “We can rebuild and go on with our lives.”

Over on Jimmy Mark Place, William and Linda Mendez were trying to do just that, making light of their deck chair that tried to blow away, but got caught on the support post from which it’s now improbably dangling.

“I promise you that chair will stay in that corner for the rest of my life,” William said after jokingly offering to sit in it for a photo op.

The rest of the set was across the street, along with the section of railing it was tied to.

“But my knots held up,” William said.

William’s no stranger to disaster, having done a five-year stint for Florida Power &Light’s storm control center in Daytona Beach.

He said over the 30 years he’s lived there, he’s done “everything humanly possible” to shore it up against the elements. His message Tuesday was it doesn’t matter all the upgrades you make when you’re dealing with big storms with lots of energy.

“Don’t even consider riding one of these babies out,” William said, adding he was close to making that mistake, but waited out the worst of the storm at his daughter’s house in St. Augustine Shores.

Farther south, dunes were breached and berms decimated once again in Summer Haven and Marineland.

A section of Old A1A got washed out again. Some homes along the shoreline in Summer Haven appeared to be missing some siding and shingles. Just north of Marineland, sand had once again washed up into the roadway, with brown, storm-tossed surf lapping the shore just steps away.

Next to this scene, some members of the National Guard were changing a tire.

“We found the one piece of metal in the road,” one of them said, adding they were on their way to Hastings to assist with flood rescue efforts there.

By early afternoon, there was still limited access across the Flagler County line to points south.

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