By Ariel Thomas firstname.lastname@example.org
Driving through Davis Shores neighborhood post-Hurricane Matthew is jarring. Though the roadways are clear, many homes have piles of destroyed items strewn on the edge of their lawns, waiting to be picked up. These piles include pieces of drywall, water-stained furniture, ruined appliances and condemned pieces of a life lived before the catastrophic storm.
“We know that 550 buildings were damaged,” St. Augustine Mayor Nancy Shaver said. “That would include public buildings as well as residences, but primarily residences.”
According to Shaver, the Davis Shores, Fullerwood and Lincolnville neighborhoods were the hardest hit in town.
“Throughout the city we had homes that are basically lost, where over 50 percent of the value of the home has been destroyed,” Shaver said. “It was a very swift moving storm, and the surge went up from King Street to U.S. 1 like a river. And then it receded very quickly, but that storm surge damage was extensive.”
While driving along Coquina Avenue, a street that runs parallel to the Matanzas River, one will come upon a home that is completely blocked from street view because of a dozen or so storage pods sitting on the front lawn. Upon closer inspection, visitors will find the front door covered in permanent black marker, directing them to the building next door. In the open garage sit many sets of power tools. At 211 Coquina Ave., one will find Tica Walley and her team of disaster relief volunteers. They’ve set up a refuge-like clinic in Walley’s damaged rental home.
Walley, whose home and rental properties were destroyed during the storm, said she has maxed out her credit card renting pods, tools and dehumidifiers as well as buying food and water for storm victims.
“I don’t feel like I’m being used, in any sense,” Walley said as she walks between properties. The pods that sit on her lawn – she’s rented 20 of them – are filled with the salvaged belongings of neighbors. Walley only had to pay for their delivery, as they have been given to her free for 30 days. Some people ask her what will happen if storm victims can’t pay to keep their possessions in the pods.
“What, am I just going to take out their stuff and leave it on the street?” Walley said, then cites the good Samaritan law, which provides basic legal protection for someone who helps another in need. She adds that she’s confident that all the tools and dehumidifiers she’s loaned out to people will eventually make their way home.
Walley, possibly one of Matthew’s hardest hit victims, has had no one start working on any of her own destroyed properties. The carpeting in all the homes has been ripped up, appliances have been removed and are sitting at the end of the yard, and the faces of all electrical sockets have been taken out. Her personal residence is stripped, the flood lines from where water filled the house remain on the wall about three to four feet above the floor. In the backyard, the hot tub has crashed through the deck, as it had been floating through the storm. At the edge of her backyard, which is right on Quarry Creek, she’s anchored a double-wide ice machine she found floating at the edge of her property. She suspects that it’s from somewhere downtown.
The rental that she’s not using for her grassroots relief center is also stripped, with the belongings she’s managed to save covered in a murky piece of plastic. Initially she had them in a pod, but has had them moved in here so she can give someone else the storage space. Walley says that the storm surge had been so high that the walls, which have been ripped out, were soaked to the top. She also explains that she had just redone the house, with new cabinets that had to be removed.
“Stuff from inside the fridge,” she points to the front of the house, a now bare, empty space where the tall appliance once sat. “Wound up all the way back there.” She points to the other side of the house, right at the back door.
The power of the storm touched every inch of her home.
Matthew was the first time in 114 years that the St. Augustine Fire Department suspended all services and personnel from the city. Carlos Aviles, the city’s emergency management coordinator, had been fire chief for only a few weeks. He has already dealt with two hurricanes within the past 30 days: Hermine and Matthew.
He explained that a skeleton team of three men and a truck stayed behind because someone needed to make sure the generators were still going. The fire station, he said, was critical to the infrastructure that recovery of the city would rely on.
The first stage of their post-storm plan was search and rescue. On Friday afternoon of Oct. 7, from their arrival at 4:30 p.m. to 3 a.m., the team was out making sure residents who had stayed behind were safe. In two instances people had to be cut out of their homes, but the rest, around 60, decided to stay put.
The second stage started Saturday morning. Aviles ordered part of his team to get sleep, while the rest went out, every truck with a chainsaw, and every “crew with public works people joined at the hip.” Together, they assessed the impact of the storm citywide, cleared the streets of debris in the event that they’d have to drive down them later. They found 25 propane tanks, two of them on Flagler College’s West Lawn, which had risen from their spots underground. They broke the city into zones, and would radio back to the station after seeing trees that had fallen onto houses and spots that needed to be cleaned up. They wrote all of this down on a whiteboard back in the station, erasing spots as they were cleared. Two weeks later, and the board is still up.
By noon on Oct. 8, they started responding to calls from residents. By 5 p.m. that day, electric lines were re-energized.
“Things started getting crazy,” Aviles said. With the re-energized lines came eight fires the first night, the second night came with 12 to 15. The fire station received 150 calls in the 72 hours after the storm.
The last stage of recovery included more detailed damage assessments, and coming to grips with the areas that saw the most destruction.
“We would drive through the neighborhoods asking what people needed,” Aviles said. They would hand out food, water and fill out welfare checks for the elderly. Their message became one thing: compassion.
“If we could render aid to the public,” Aviles said. “We would do it.”
Damage estimates for the city in the days after the storm ranged from $6 million to $7 million.
“The city is doing what everyone else is doing,” Shaver said of the current state of St. Augustine. “It’s assessing the damage, working with its insurance, and that’s really the stage many people find themselves in right now.”
Many people have registered for aid from FEMA, Federal Emergency Management, or SBA, the Small Business Administration. Crews from Kentucky, Louisiana, and other parts of the country have come to help. The mayor said that the city sure looks different than what it did a week ago.
“You see people who have lost everything, where their entire life is in their front yard.” The hardest part for her was learning that out of all the residents ordered to evacuate, half of them stayed. “It was really, really tough to know as you watch the storm track.”
Shaver was inspired by the way the community came together after the storm. She said that so many people volunteered to move debris and drywall, as well as bring water and meals to those who needed it.
As for the future and for other possible storms, she said the city was already ahead of the curve. In the face of both sea level rise and turbulent weather, they’ve done an environmental study and are recommending new locations to build should someone not want to live in a flood zone. They’ve also created a model that reveals what portions of the city will be threatened in future storms.
“There’s always opportunity in something like this,” she said.
Aviles, who has 16 years of military experience, said that those skills helped him cope with leading this disastrous situation. In the fire station’s pre-planning, they loaded up on three days’ worth of food for public works employees, police officers and firefighters. But his experience and pre-planning didn’t make the situation any less stressful. He still felt somewhat helpless, as they knew some people weren’t evacuating.
He does, however, agree that the storm exposed the city’s weaknesses, and in the future will know what a 7-foot storm surge will look like. Aviles believes that they also need to implement a mitigation process, as well as raising the flood lines for new construction.
When told that he only had one business card left in the display on his desk, he admits thinking that when he got the job, it would take him a lifetime to get rid of all of them. A few weeks later and he’s refilling the stack.
Back in Davis Shores, Tica Walley has reached out to out-of-state crews in order to help with clean up around her neighborhood, including Jesse Pope and Lesley Platek of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, a nonprofit organization in North Carolina. Together, they’ve been driving around assessing damage and offering help to those who need it. As the people currently doing clean up wear themselves out, Walley said she’s been looking for volunteers – and fresh muscle – in some unexpected spots, like gyms and workout centers.
With that, she climbed into a car with Pope and Platek and they drove off.