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An Ounce of PREVENTION

Lessons learned from Hurricane Matthew may have improved response to Irma

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More than a month after Hurricane Irma spread her vigorous winds and rain over St. Augustine, some residents and businesses are still recovering from the treacherous storm. Though some continue repairing roofs, clearing debris and making renovations, others were fortunate to quickly welcome the public back into their establishments.

Last year, after Hurricane Matthew ripped through St. Augustine, a town financially fueled by tourism, many of the city’s businesses and attractions spent months recovering. This year, the city was again in a similar situation, preparing for surge, flooding, strong winds and all the devastation that comes with a massive hurricane. Many looked back on their experiences with Matthew to plan how to prepare for Irma. People stood in line at stores for caulk, plastic sheeting, foam, duct tape, and any other products that might keep Mother Nature from damaging their beloved homes and buildings.

Jeff McNally, owner of The Floridian restaurant (my employer), said, “One week to a few days out, most folks agreed it would be ‘bad’ to ‘catastrophic’. So then, there were several visits to the ol’ sandpit, scouring hardware stores for Gorilla Tape and silicone sealant, filling up various containers with clean water.”

These preparations may have minimized the damage caused by Irma. Several areas of town experienced high levels of flooding during Matthew, a fate a lucky few were able to avoid this year. Several other neighborhoods in the area weren’t as fortunate; the storm surge and flooding affected the ground floors of many buildings. The second time around, though, the precautions taken were the same in most areas: getting every movable item to a much higher level.

Tonevendor Record Store in Downtown St. Augustine is a perfect example of the damage most experienced. Though the shop flooded, owner Dan Sostrom said that they were able to save merchandise and furniture by “moving everything up,” adding, “After this time, we learned even more.”

Local attractions, such as the Alligator Farm Zoological Park and Marineland Dolphin Adventure, also anticipated the worst and took steps to ensure minimum wreckage. Both these local zoological gems are in high-impact zones for hurricane damage. Gen Anderson, Alligator Farm’s general curator, said the low-lying parcel has several waterways running through it and so, “In practice from Matthew, we knew exactly what to do.”

The two days spent prepping ahead of the storm may have worked out in their favor. The Alligator Farm was one of the first attractions to return to business as usual after Irma, opening on the Thursday after the storm. Though there was a lot of fallen debris and flooding in the Maximo exhibit, the staff was able to quickly clear the animal enclosures and get things back in working order.

Whereas Matthew caused more water and wave damage to the park, oceanfront Marineland was most affected by Irma’s winds. Though both storms damaged the facilities, Irma’s repairs were significantly less expensive. Vice President Kurt Allen estimated repairs would cost around $15,000 after Irma had her way with the facility, as opposed to the $650,000 worth of damage caused by Matthew.

In late October, Allen said, “Marineland was still finishing up repairs from Matthew” and “the repairs on the roofs and buildings after Matthew helped during Irma.”

Widespread power outages plagued the city for several days after Hurricane Irma passed. Waiting for power to come back on delayed some efforts to begin recovery. Meanwhile, restaurants suffered loss of refrigeration, costing thousands of dollars in lost product for some.

Ryan Kunsch, owner of Planet Sarbez, said, “Well, we flooded and lost power. Our really cool cactus uprooted and was laying in the street. We lost all our food and our draft beers and some fridges broke.”

Loss of product directly correlates to loss of revenue; it can be more challenging to rebuild when there is no money coming in. But Kunsch says Planet Sarbez escaped the worst. “We are back open and better than ever,” he said. “It’ll take a little bit of time to get the flow back but I’m confident and thinking only good thoughts.”

With most of the electricity restored by the Tuesday following the storm, the historic town of St. Augustine began to return to its daily routine. Neighbors helped those who had been flooded. Restaurants began repairs and food deliveries were made to refill walk-in coolers. The streetlights were swiftly returned working order and the town began to rebuild, again.

Many business owners were pleased to open and eager to welcome customers. However, they faced a problem: The phones and internet had not yet been restored. Those venues that couldn’t rely on two primary communications lines, take credit cards or answer emails had to wait longer to recover.

“Marineland had no phone or internet for five days,” Allen said. “We weren’t able to get phone calls, answer emails, or take reservations. It helps when you can talk to people.”

Sostrom runs a music mail-order business out of Tonevendor. He says that it took two full weeks to have internet restored at the shop. “I was answering emails on my phone as much as possible and doing everything else at home,” Sostrom said.

The economy of St. Augustine will feel the effects of Irma for several months, perhaps longer. Businesses in the Ancient City receive much of their revenue from tourists—many of those tourists are fellow Floridians. The storm moved through nearly the entire state, affecting everyone at different levels, ensuring all Floridians knew its wrath. For those who remain without work or are still repairing their cities and homes, a trip to the Oldest City is not high on the priority list, which is probably why, though September is considered a slow month for the tourism economy, business owners say they noticed a little more of a lull than normal.

“September was a rough month,” Sostrom said. “The entire state got hit [by Irma] and it has caused the worst economic impact. The whole state is pressing the pause button.”

“St. Augustine has been a bit slower on top of an already slow season,” McNally said. “The whole state of Florida was affected, and therefore we haven’t seen as many day/weekend trippers, as so many people are dealing with the fallout.”

Like the rest of the cities and towns throughout the state, St. Augustine has been steadily rebuilding since Irma. Fire Chief Carlos Aviles said, “The city of St. Augustine is recovering well from Hurricane Irma. It’s not easy to recover from two federally declared disasters in one year, but the city is doing well.”

Irma demanded as much attention as Matthew but, like homeowners and business owners, many city officials feel that the lessons learned from last year’s storm improved everyone’s preparations this time around.

“Irma showed us how much more experienced our community was. Residents were better prepared and we as a city had almost a year to fine-tune our preparations and planning,” Aviles said.

However, no matter how prepared one may be, any major hurricane will cause destruction and devastation. Meredith Breidenstein, St. Augustine director of budget and performance management, said that the costs accrued from damages and repairs for the city are estimated at $6.5 million. The city has completed debris pickup and lift stations are being repaired; however, Breidenstein said that as of Oct. 23, repairs had not yet begun on the municipal marina, which was badly damaged in the storm. The city estimates repairs there will run to $2.5 million.

The estimated costs are high and recovery for the city continues to require a lot of hard work, but most folks are confident in their efforts.

“While we had a lot of challenges this year, we feel the city and its recovery efforts are moving forward at acceptable pace,” Aviles said.

St. Augustine survived Matthew and it will survive Irma. With the holiday season right around the corner, business owners may be able to recoup some of their losses. The holiday season—when Nights of Lights starts on Nov. 18, bringing people here from all over the world—is one of the most profitable times for the city and downtown shops and restaurants to count on a strong revenue boost.

McNally said, “We look forward to the holiday season, and making sure people know that the town is still safe, vibrant, strong, beautiful and open for business.”

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