Residents still reeling from second hurricane hit in a year

Much of what was inside Joe Saviak's home was placed out on the front lawn after Hurricane Matthew. In Irma, the home still flooded, but Saviak placed his belongings in storage beforehand. Photo credit: Joe Saviak

By Katie Garwood |

After going through Hurricane Matthew less than a year ago, Beverly Wolfe watched with anxiety as Hurricane Harvey swept through Texas in August.

She couldn’t imagine being in their place, or if a similar storm came to St. Augustine, so soon again after Hurricane Matthew last October. But less than a year after Matthew, that’s the position Wolfe found herself in as Hurricane Irma brushed St. Augustine in early September.

“[I said] I’m not ready to go through this again,” said Wolfe, a Davis Shores resident and St. Augustine native. “I’ve just finished the repairs on my house from Matthew, but what are you going to do? You can’t say, ‘I’m not ready, so don’t come. Come another day, we’re not ready yet.’ So you do what you have to do.”

Although Hurricane Irma – a category two storm when it came through St. Augustine – wasn’t a direct hit, Davis Shores’ low-lying, peninsular nature meant it would again experience severe flooding for a second time in less than a year, forcing many of its residents to bear the emotional and financial costs of another storm’s damages.

Even two months after Irma, Davis Shores residents are still putting their lives back together. Dumpsters, debris and storage units still lay in front of homes. And residents are still recuperating mentally from the toll two major storms in one year have taken on them.

John Powell and his wife Sharon de Jonge, both living history interpreters, live in Davis Shores. The first time their house flooded in Matthew, 28 inches of water ruined nearly everything–from appliances, furniture, plaster walls to Powell’s lifelong collection of reference books he’d been working on for 50 years.

Hurricane Irma was “a little bit kinder” to Powell and de Jonge, although their house still had nearly 20 inches of water inside. Powell said they spent hours taping and caulking doors and windows, but this time, water came into the house through toilets and drains, too.

“We’re all sitting here going, ‘what did we do to deserve this?’,” Powell said.

After Irma, Powell had to replace his appliances and two HVACs, but overall, he said he lost much less.

“The massive amount of loss the first time, it was traumatizing,” Powell said. “We have lost much less [this year] because we had nothing left to lose.”

Beverly Wolfe stands in her now-completed home, two months after Irma hit St. Augustine. Photo: Colton Andre

In Hurricane Matthew, Wolfe’s home, which used to be her grandparents’, was flooded as well. The garage had about 3 ½ feet of water in it, there were 6 inches in her “step down room,” which sits below the rest of the house. The house’s original hardwood floors were soaked from underneath since the house is raised above the ground.

With Hurricane Irma, Wolfe’s house escaped flooding, much like it had since 1954 when it was constructed. Before Matthew, Wolfe said she didn’t think it was possible for her house to flood: it survived Hurricane Dora in 1964, the last hurricane to hit St. Augustine before Matthew.

Although Wolfe’s home didn’t flood, had there been another inch of water around her house, she said it would have. She feels lucky to have experienced flooding only once, especially since many of her neighbors weren‘t as fortunate.

“I thought after Matthew, I’m 53, I’ve lived here my whole life and I’m a native, and we’ve never had this kind of issue before,” Wolfe said. “It’s nerve wracking because now we know it can happen again and it probably will.”

Joe Saviak is Wolfe’s neighbor. Last year, Saviak’s home took in nearly 4 feet of water, destroying nearly everything inside his house. He was out of his home for seven months after Hurricane Matthew hit, and it took 11 months for everything to “get everything right, all the finishing touches.”

No more than a week after Saviak completed his repairs, Hurricane Irma hit St. Augustine, flooding Saviak’s home a second time, but to a lesser extent.

After sealing, taping and caulking doors, Saviak and his wife Carol had 7 inches of water in some places their home, though there were 30 inches of water piled up outside. They also decided to put everything inside their house into storage.

“It’s never a happy moment when your home is flooded a second time,” Saviak said. “It’s not as disappointing or depressing. You just know you’re going to get through it.”

For some Davis Shores businesses, lost income was enough for them to shut down permanently. Blackfly Restaurant flooded twice, but was able to bounce back each time. Their building on Anastasia Boulevard took in 32 inches of water during Matthew. In Irma, 18 inches of water made its way inside the restaurant–still enough to cause damage.

“This year I kind of expected it, more than I expected it last year,” said Nick Massie, the restaurant’s general manager. “Last year had sort of a shock value to it. I kind of walked in here expecting to see some things wet. [The first time] was just heart to the floor kind of devastating … It was everything.”

In talking to her neighbors around Davis Shores, De Jonge said nearly everyone expressed many of the same emotions. They were angry, upset and in her husband’s case, depressed.

“Sharon and I aren’t exactly spring chickens,” Powell said. “The feathers are a little bit frayed. If I was 10, 15 years younger, I’d still have a lot expletives, but I wouldn’t feel so depressed. I mean, I’m depressed. I’m 67 years old, and this was our house. I’m not sure what we’re going to do now. We’re going to move back in, we’re going to do the best we can.”

Logistically, dealing with hurricane damage two years in a row isn’t an easy task, as one might imagine, Saviak said. Those affected have to learn to navigate insurance claims processes, the home renovation process, and pay out of pocket for what insurance doesn’t cover.

But with time, and unfortunately repetition, the process becomes easier, Saviak said.

“You become more resilient, and it’s sad to say, but you get good at this,” he said. “You know what’s involved and what’s expected, and you move much more quickly and efficiently.”

Finding places to stay while renovations are happening at home is another aspect to the recovery process. Powell said he and his wife had stayed in several different condos, with family members and at one point after Matthew, a trailer on their front lawn.

Others in the neighborhood had the same idea. De Jonge called her street “trailer city” for a while after Hurricane Matthew. Shortly before Irma came through, the trailers had moved out. Shortly after Irma came through, all the trailers were back.

“Everybody just pulled their trailers back and went ‘here we go again,’” De Jonge said.

After her garage flooded in Hurricane Matthew, Beverly Wolfe decided to move many things in her garage off the floor to avoid damage in the future. Photo: Colton Andre

Although there may not seem to be many positives to having your house flooded twice in 11 months, Saviak said he’s managed to find a few.

“As long as you have the relationships that define your life which for us is our faith, our family, our friendships, our neighbors, that’s what matters most,” he said. “It’s all just stuff, that’s why you have insurance. It’ll all get replaced.”

Despite the threat of another storm, and having to repair their homes again, Saviak and Wolfe have no plans to head for higher ground. If you want to live in Florida, hurricanes are a geographical hazard, much like earthquakes in California, Saviak said.

“You can’t live your life in fear that there could be a disaster,” he said. “You have to move forward and live a positive, productive life … I have no fear for the future. I’m 49 years old, this could very well happen again in my lifetime.”

Wolfe said she and many other St. Augustine natives thought their hometown was practically exempt from hurricanes. Before 2015, St. Augustine had gone more than 50 years without a major hurricane. After two hurricanes in one year, those in Davis Shores know better.

“Old beliefs have gone away,” Wolfe said. “You have a new normal and a new reality.”

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