The Florida city is no stranger to flooding, but back-to-back hits from hurricanes have left residents soaked, frustrated and worried about the future.
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — This place calls itself the “Ancient City,” and, by the standards of American cities, that’s about right. St. Augustine is 452 years old, having been founded by the Spanish conquistador Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565.
But residents are reckoning with stunning turn in its more recent history. Last October, Hurricane Matthew poured historic flooding into St. Augustine, inundating downtown, where Spanish colonial-style buildings and Gilded-age spires gleam over the bay, and leaving residents ripping out walls and replacing sodden furniture. Now, the city is cleaning up after Hurricane Irma, which whipped trees out of the ground and poured more water into homes and businesses that were just getting back to normal after Matthew.
St. Augustine is no stranger to sunny-day flooding, but the back-to-back hits from Matthew and Irma were the first major hurricanes to descend here since Dora in the 1960s, and they have left residents soaked, frustrated and, in some cases, worried about the future.
“It is the oldest continuously occupied city in America. It is how we started,” Mayor Nancy Shaver said.
But, she said, “I’ve never had people ask me the questions they’re asking me now: Is this the new normal? What are we going to do with the city?”
St. Augustine changed hands between the Spanish, the British and the Americans over its long history and, in the late 1800s, Henry M. Flagler, a founder of Standard Oil, began to open hotels. One of those hotels turned into Flagler College, and St. Augustine has become an idyllic city of colleges, museums and tourism.
But on Wednesday, some of the hotels were draining themselves of floodwater and piling mattresses outside. The Lightner Museum, a downtown gem, was closed because it had flooded, and an apparently unmoored sailboat called the Celebration, its mast snapped, was floating in the middle of the river.
Irma’s destruction has left residents and business owners here with a grim sense of déjà vu, especially in the Davis Shores neighborhood, a development across the river, where Leo Guenther looked at the debris piled in front of his house — bathroom cabinets, interior doors, and two twin mattresses — and shook his head.
“All that stuff,” he said, “is new since Hurricane Matthew.”
The shock of a double whammy has extended elsewhere in St. Johns County, where, on Wednesday, inland rivers were still flooding and, north of St. Augustine, and parts of oceanside homes made more vulnerable by Hurricane Matthew had tumbled onto the sand.
“This was our chance to get our beach house,” said Theresa Forrester, a retired postal worker who in June had bought a waterfront home in Ponte Vedra Beach that had lost part of its retaining wall to Hurricane Matthew. She and her partner, Larry Edwards, planned to rehabilitate it. But she said the permit to fix the wall had not come in time, and so Irma had chewed up the houses’s garage and workshop and spit the pieces out onto the sand — and ripped off siding and roof shingles to boot.
“When we bought this, people said, ‘We haven’t had a hurricane like that in 50 years, 100 years, we’ll never have another one like that,’ ” Ms. Forrester said. “And then, boom.”
People struggled to recover across Florida, but the situation remained particularly dire in the Florida Keys. The death toll there rose to eight, and dozens of people and boats remain accounted for.
“There’s got to be 1,000 boats sunk in the Keys. We have to make sure somebody wasn’t on it,” the Monroe County sheriff, Rick Ramsay, said. He added that people have begun taking available food and looting stores and homes in the Lower Keys, taking advantage of a power loss and evacuated communities and marinas to steal boating equipment and other valuables.
In some ways, St. Augustine has already begun to adapt to its new normal, if that is what it is. “We were much more prepared,” said John Regan, the city manager, whose home flooded during both Matthew and Irma. “There was more use of taping and caulking and foams, and trying to make doors watertight.”
Linda O’Shields, 76, who had lost all of her furniture in Hurricane Matthew, prepared for Irma by piling her possessions onto platforms rigged from two by fours and interior doors by her son-in-law, Gerry Watts, which protected her possessions from the 18 inches of water that flowed into her house. But she was asking bigger questions about the storm, too.
“I know it’s an act of nature, but to be hit twice within a year, it makes you wonder what’s happening in nature,” Ms. O’Shields said. “Is it cyclical? Am I to believe global warming? I don’t know.”
Ms. Shaver, the mayor, said it was incumbent on the city to find better ways to protect its low-lying areas, “and not have the spires of Flagler College have gondolas going around them.”
“Our sea level rise, we’re actually ahead of many small coastal towns,” Ms. Shaver said, referring to an issue she said had already compounded St. Augustine’s nuisance flooding.
This old city, she said, is doing what it can to handle new threats. It has begun installing valves to keep seawater from flowing up into storm water drains, which helps prevent sunny day flooding. It has been studying a plan to dredge Maria Sanchez Lake and install a pump station to help with flooding there. By 2030, Ms. Shaver said, the wastewater plant would be vulnerable to flooding — but relocating it would be $100 million project in a city with a $50 million annual budget. “We know there are big things we need to do,” Ms. Shaver said. “We know what they are. We don’t have funding mechanisms for them.”
But none of that, she said, can stop a hurricane, or storm surge flooding in this low-lying city.
Downtown, Karla Wagner was drying out the Corazon Cinema and Cafe, which she said had filled with two feet of water after Irma came through.
“It’s devastating,” Ms. Wagner said, explaining that she had spent tens of thousands of dollars repairing the cinema after Hurricane Matthew — and now Irma had left it soaked once again and damaged the roof to boot. She hoped, she said, that the city could do more — and soon — to protect itself.