The effects of climate change pushing long time St. Augustine residents inland

The corner of King Street and Granada Street flooding during Hurricane Matthew.

By Mara Mazar

Jan Cheney, a resident of St. Augustine for 62 years stays strong as she explains her plans for this year to move.

“Tomorrow we list our house for sale and we’ve lived here almost 30 years,” Jan Cheney, a resident of St. Augustine, said.

“We’ve raised our children here and we love it and it’s about to break our hearts, but I cannot live with the stress involved in just seeing an image of a hurricane in the Atlantic basin.”

Cheney is one of many residents that is making the decision to move further inland as flooding, one of the many effects of climate change, constantly puts their homes at risk.

No matter the lobby of city hall in St. Augustine, hurricane and climate change posters, booklets or binders are set out to be viewed by residents. City officials of St. Augustine are making the protection of the city, history and residents a high priority.

Officials themselves are taking precautions in preparation for flooding, whether it is due to hurricanes or sea-level rise as projects to further protect the city are still in their early phases.

City Commissioner Roxanne Horvath has taken steps to protect her own home. Similar to the recommendations of the FEMA September 2015 booklet, Reducing Flood Risk to Residential Buildings That Cannot Be Elevated, Horvath built her house on the marsh in a way that would mostly protect it in the event of flooding.

“My husband and I built our house 12 years ago and we designed it to have just a two-car garage on the ground floor. It was concrete block, no drywall. When the storms came in and the water came, the water came into the garage and then the water left and we just washed it out,” Horvath said.

“Everything was good to go because we lived on the second, third and fourth flood, and we have hurricane glass so we were protected there.”

Horvath explained that houses and businesses should be looking into being lifted or hardened depending on the structure to above base flood elevation (BFE) grade level. BFE is, “the regulatory requirement of the elevation or floodproofing of structures,” according to FEMA.

Mike Cullum, St. Augustine’s chief resiliency officer is currently working on several projects to defend the old city against climate change.

“So we’ve constructed part of the protection. The seawall on the bayfront was four and a half feet elevation and we raised it to seven feet elevation. That is the start of the protection,” Cullum said.

Some of the other projects that are being finalized, planned or are in the process are the installation of tide check valves, raising the critical electronic components of the wastewater treatment plant up to 11 feet, and working on raising Coquina Park, in David Shores to seven feet.

Cullum states that Hurricane Matthew, which hit St. Augustine in early October 2016, had an elevation of about seven feet. Local resident, Jan Cheney, says otherwise.

“My floor elevation is nine and a half feet and my house flooded 10 inches, so it flooded 10 inches above that,” Cheney said.

Cheney plans to continue to live in St. Augustine working for Flagler College as the faculty coordinator for special projects, but she will be moving inland, leaving the neighborhood she grew up in. The stress from flooding when she comes back to her home after a hurricane has made her make the decision to leave.

“It’s hard, you know. It’s hard to come back. It’s hard to come back once and it’s even harder twice,” Cheney said. “I want to live the rest of my life in peace and not have to worry about running from hurricanes.”

During Hurricane Matthew, Cheney and her family sheltered in Flagler College, along with some students and other staff. Cheney rewatched the videos she has of the flooding, wind and rain looking outside of Flagler College’s solarium window. Cheney said, at the point, they were told that they needed to move to a lower level of the building. In Kenan Hall, she watched as the city flooded.

I stood on the fifth floor of Kenan looking toward Treasury Street and you could see it coming,” Cheney said. “It looked like just little waves then a little bigger. After a little bit, it was just rushing water.”

During the most recent hurricane, Hurricane Dorian, Cheney considered herself lucky. For Hurricane Dorian, she packed up the furniture in a U-Haul truck and watched the storm from her home.

“We sat on our back deck and we watched the water from the bay come up to the back steps of our deck in the backyard and we realized that we were inches away from flooding again from a storm that was not even nearby,” Cheney said.

As projects begin, Cheney hopes that the future of David Shores is bright as she makes her plans to leave her home of so many years.

“I was riding my bicycle all over Anastasia Island before I ever was in school and fishing off the seawalls and playing on the beach. It’s a wonderful place to grow up and live,” Cheney said. “I have every hope that we can figure something out.”      

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