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As Hurricane Matthew unleashed its hellfire on Haiti on Oct. 5, businesses throughout its projected path through Florida began shuttering; cars were packed, windows boarded and residents fled to safer ground with friends, in hotels and area shelters. Northeast Florida braced for the worst storm in living memory to hit the region, glued to the news as we hunkered with fingers crossed and prayers for homes and businesses and the thousands who stubbornly refused to budge in spite of the direst of warnings. “This storm will kill you,” Governor Rick Scott gravely said in a press conference.
In the end, however, Hurricane Matthew was not to be “the storm of the century” when it raged up Florida’s coastline on Oct. 7.
Instead, on Saturday, when people crawled out from the cloistered spaces where they’d waited out the deluge, which raked the coast as a Category 3 hurricane, rather than the worst-case scenario Category 4 direct hit that many had anticipated, from Flagler, which took it the hardest, to Fernandina Beach, which was hammered by the surge, the biggest surprise was how little had changed.
Returning home, most evacuees found some cosmetic damage — shattered glass, missing shingles and thousands of trees, splintered in two and ripped out of the ground, roots still clinging to the earth that had been their anchor. Even as crews worked 12-hour shifts and utilities from around the nation sent manpower and equipment to help with the restoration, through the weekend power remained elusive for hundreds of thousands. At night, the area was transformed into a patchwork of bright and dark patches representing the electricity haves and have-nots.
Throughout Saturday and Sunday, the buzz of chainsaws and generators filled the air. With so many without power and most businesses closed, ice and gas were in short supply. By Sunday, some of the hundreds of thousands of Northeast Floridians still without power had started grumbling on social media; over the long, powerless weekend, the storm created a new type of evacuee: the electricity refugee.
Otherwise, the damage was nothing like the expectations of chaos and destruction that had been broadcast with increasing urgency as the storm neared. Even as early as Saturday, in some spots, such as long sections of oceanfront Heckscher Drive/S.R. A1A in Fernandina Beach, the sight of perfect lawns and grand homes entirely intact was so uninterrupted that if you didn’t know there had been a serious squall, you’d have assumed it was a typically idyllic weekend.
As the jittery angst of Hurricane Matthew passed, a sense of elation gripped the populous. Residents who refused mandatory evacuation orders felt vindicated, while those who’d obeyed sat in traffic and waited for the bridges to reopen.
“We made it!” a returning evacuee shouted jubilantly from a car on Mayport Road, shortly after the bridges reopened at noon on Saturday.
In sun-washed Mayport Village, people were relieved to find that reports of Singleton’s Seafood Shack’s demise that had circulated on social media during the storm had been largely exaggerated. Similarly, a somewhat still-standing Jacksonville Beach Pier, which was widely reported to have been obliterated while the winds blew and the waves raged, was a welcome sight. Approximately a third of it had washed away. “It used to be longer,” one man quipped, laughing.
Rich Banks, captain of Neptune Beach Ocean Rescue, said the beaches would have been much worse off without the dune restoration project. “Dunes did their job here in Neptune Beach,” he said, pointing to poles that had been exposed by sea water washing large chunks of dune away. Banks estimated that the storm had taken the dune restoration back at least 15 years.
Left with little to do other than collect tree limbs and remove boards from windows, on Saturday afternoon thousands flocked to the beach to take in the gouged-out dunes, damaged businesses such as Casa Marina, where cleanup was well underway, and refuse left behind by the storm surge which, though it breached the dunes, caused relatively little damage.
By early afternoon, the ocean was dotted with the bobbing heads of surfers, with more arriving by the minute to catch some post-hurricane waves. Banks grimaced, mentioning the large amount of trash that was reportedly visible at low tide that morning. “Last I heard … the beaches were closed — but you can’t stop 60,000 people from coming to take a look,” he said.
Shortboard tucked under an arm, sunscreen white on his shoulders as if applied in a hurry, one man in Jax Beach scoffed at the mention of debris and bacteria in the water. “A lot of people in the water, too,” he retorted, trotting toward the waves.
Meanwhile, in St. Augustine, other than the odd urban adventurer and merchants picking up the sodden pieces of wreckage strewn across the floors of their businesses, streets normally thronged with visitors were eerily empty. A high waterline marked the spot where the flood finally halted its swell after pouring over the seawall. The Ancient City will likely have the longest road to recovery.
After the bridges to Fernandina Beach opened at 4 p.m., residents returned to find downed trees, power outages and evidence of some flooding. Most, though not all, were largely unscathed. To observers standing behind a border of red caution tape, Brett’s Waterway Café appeared to have suffered the most significant damage; cracks had opened throughout the concrete walkway around it, boards plied up and flung aside, pipes ripped and bent underneath.
When the Green Turtle opened at 8 p.m., happy, slightly ironic cries of “you made it!” punctured the air whenever a new face appeared in the door.
While for many, Hurricane Matthew was just an excuse for a long weekend, for others, the storm was an opportunity.
At the jetties on Saturday, two men in a truck collected wood left behind by the floodwaters, seemingly for themselves, not as a public service. In the Windy Hill neighborhood in Jacksonville, Billy Mernagh said he got to work for Anderson’s Tree Service at first light. He didn’t have to go far; first his crew removed the tree that fell on Mernagh’s house during the storm, luckily without causing much damage, then they were to begin what he expected to be many uninterrupted days of work. “[I’m] on call ’til whenever,” he said.
In Mayport, Kayla Leitch remarked of her companion, Garrett Putnam, “He owns his own lawn business, so it’s going to be a good week for him.”
After Hurricane Matthew claimed nearly 900 lives in Haiti, Florida braced for a catastrophic storm. With six lives lost statewide, two bridges closed until further notice (Shands S.R. 16 Bridge and Crescent Beach S.R. 206 Bridge), relatively few cars, homes and businesses smashed to smithereens or lifted off their axes by floodwaters, by and large, the consensus was: We got lucky. This time.
“If we would’ve got the brunt of the storm, it would’ve been chaos,” Winston ”Bobby” Davis said Saturday afternoon, from his spot selling boiled peanuts on Heckscher Drive by I-295, where the sun was bright and hot.
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Dennis Ho contributed to this story.