Flood­wa­ters lin­ger­ing in Jack­sonville area

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY LORI ROZSA na­tional@wash­post.com

The swollen St. Johns River has left much of the north­east­ern cor­ner of Florida un­der­wa­ter.

JACK­SONVILLE, FLA. — While the rest of Florida be­gan pick­ing it­self up af­ter Hur­ri­cane Irma, this city in the far north­east­ern cor­ner of the state was still ex­pe­ri­enc­ing se­ri­ous flood­ing and was brac­ing for more in­un­da­tion to come.

Some flood­wa­ters from the mas­sive trop­i­cal storm were ex­pected here, but the scale of the un­fold­ing dis­as­ter took Jack­sonville and nearby towns by sur­prise. Driven by tidal flow, an al­ready sat­u­rated in­land wa­ter­way sys­tem and Irma’s pow­er­ful winds and rains, the swollen and fast-rush­ing St. Johns River crashed over sea walls and sand­bags and left much of the area un­der­wa­ter.

Of­fi­cials called the flood­ing “epic” and “his­toric,” with the river through this city of nearly 900,000 hit­ting lev­els not seen since 1846 — a year af­ter Florida be­came a state. On Tues­day the city started to re­cover, but me­te­o­rol­o­gists warned that some flood­ing is likely to re­turn as storm-gen­er­ated waters rush south from the Caroli­nas to­ward the At­lantic Ocean.

The St. Johns — 315 miles long and three miles wide at points — is ex­pected to con­tinue threat­en­ing com­mu­ni­ties in north­east Florida be­cause the huge vol­umes of wa­ter the river is hold­ing have no place to go, ac­cord­ing to Angie Enyedi, an in­ci­dent me­te­o­rol­o­gist with the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice.

“The wa­ter will sub­side very grad­u­ally within the St. Johns River basin. The wa­ter is trapped in the St. Johns, and es­sen­tially ‘sloshes’ north to south within the river with each high tide,” Enyedi wrote in a memo about the dis­as­ter. “Ma­jor river flood­ing will con­tinue for many more tide cy­cles.”

Hun­dreds of res­i­dents had to be res­cued from the ris­ing waters in Jack­sonville and nearby com­mu­ni­ties af­ter they chose not to heed pleas from lo­cal and state of­fi­cials to flee the area ahead of Irma. Mil­lions of Florid­i­ans had headed north to es­cape Irma’s po­ten­tial path af­ter of­fi­cials warned that the once-pow­er­ful storm could cause cat­a­strophic dam­age to sev­eral Florida cities.

“We hope the 356 peo­ple who had their lives saved yes­ter­day will take evac­u­a­tion or­ders more se­ri­ously in the fu­ture,” the Jack­sonville sher­iff ’s of­fice tweeted Tues­day.

The evac­u­a­tion or­der was lifted Tues­day. Busi­ness own­ers re­turned to river­front shops and restau­rants to find sea grass, tree limbs and an inch of mud cover- ing streets and some side­walks. By mid­day, the mud started to give off a strong odor as it baked in the hot sun.

At Jack­sonville Land­ing, a mar­ket­place on the river near EverBank Field, home to the Jack­sonville Jaguars, the only busi­ness open was a Hoot­ers res­tau­rant that had closed Fri­day night ahead of the storm.

“We came in, cleaned up and got it open,” said Hoot­ers re­gional man­ager Cindy In­gram.

In Clay County, about 40 miles south of Jack­sonville, Black Creek was still flood­ing neigh­bor­hoods and roads. The creek crested Tues­day morn­ing at 28.5 feet “and likely won’t be­gin re­ced­ing un­til Fri­day,” ac­cord­ing to county spokes­woman Kim­berly Morgan.

More than 37,500 peo­ple were with­out power in Clay County, and Morgan said res­i­dents should be pre­pared to go with­out power there for a week or longer.

Kim­berly Robin­son, pub­lic in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer for the Green Cove Springs Po­lice Depart­ment, said a nor’easter that hit the area shortly be­fore Irma came through made mat­ters worse. “All that wa­ter just had nowhere to go,” Robin­son said.

The area was hit by Hur­ri­cane Matthew last year, but Robin­son said the ex­pe­ri­ence was very dif­fer­ent. “Matthew came in and wa­ter came up, then it went back down,” she said. “We’ve never ex­pe­ri­enced any­thing like this.”

With Green Cove Springs vir­tu­ally shut down be­cause of power out­ages, res­i­dents were clean­ing up and also tak­ing a break. Wil­liam Say­lor, a ser­vice man­ager at a car deal­er­ship, went to the town’s river­front park Tues­day morn­ing. The park’s gazebo, nor­mally about 20 yards from the shore of the St. Johns River, was now at wa­ter’s edge. Say­lor took out his fish­ing rod, put a plas­tic worm on it, and hooked a three-pound large­mouth bass within sec­onds.

“The wa­ter pushed all the bait fish too far out, so the bass are com­ing up here look­ing for food,” he said. “They’re hun­gry.”

Say­lor re­leased the fish back into the wa­ter at a spot where chil­dren usu­ally play in the grass. “It’s kind of crazy to think that you could fish here,” he said. “This wa­ter should be 30 yards out.”

On Tues­day, life in the coastal city of St. Au­gus­tine — the old­est per­ma­nent city in Amer­ica, founded on Sept. 8, 1565 — was prob­a­bly more as it was 450 years ago than it should be to­day. The city was still with­out power. Trol­ley tours in the his­toric down­town were shut down.

Restau­rants were closed. Work­ers were suc­tion­ing wa­ter out of the lower floors of the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, and busi­ness own­ers were mop­ping up floors and pick­ing up tree limbs.

“We sand­bagged, we caulked, we boarded up, we taped plas­tic, and the wa­ter still found a way in,” said Adam Amoia, owner of Romeo’s Cafe on Cathe­dral Place, just up the road from the his­toric Castillo de San Marco fortress. “When we walked in here, it was like the beach was dumped on the floor.”

Amoia had to walk three miles to see the dam­age Irma wrought on his busi­ness on Mon­day, be­cause all roads lead­ing to the town were blocked. He and his crew started mop­ping out the wa­ter and dry­ing the floors at dawn Tues­day.

They were work­ing in the dark, and in the heat. He’s con­fi­dent that Romeo’s — home of the “Bub­ble Waf­fle” ice cream cone — will be up and run­ning soon, but he is get­ting weary of hur­ri­canes.

“This will be our third grand open­ing,” Amoia said. “We opened al­most two years ago, re­opened af­ter Matthew, and now we’ll have an­other re­open­ing af­ter Irma. I’m ready to just stay open for good.”

“We sand­bagged, we caulked, we boarded up, we taped plas­tic, and the wa­ter still found a way in.” Adam Amoia, owner of a res­tau­rant in St. Au­gus­tine, Fla.

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Wa­ter in­un­dates ve­hi­cles in a scrap yard Tues­day in Cal­la­han, Fla., out­side Jack­sonville. The St. Johns River is swelling over its banks in the wake of Hur­ri­cane Irma, and heavy rains to the north of the state could add to the trou­ble as waters rush back to the ocean.

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