Matthew washes away sand dunes, dreams along strip of Florida coast


October 9, 2016

FLAGLER BEACH, Fla. — Hurricane Matthew reduced Florida’s scenic Atlantic Coast Highway — the economic lifeline of the state’s small beach towns — to an impassable pile of concrete and asphalt rubble after the powerful storm surge washed away sand dunes and earth supporting the roadway.

October 9, 2016

FLAGLER BEACH, Fla. — Hurricane Matthew reduced Florida’s scenic Atlantic Coast Highway — the economic lifeline of the state’s small beach towns — to an impassable pile of concrete and asphalt rubble after the powerful storm surge washed away sand dunes and earth supporting the roadway.

St. Augustine Alligator Farm bird and mammal curator Gen Anderson describes how storks were sheltered in bathrooms during Hurricane Matthew at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, in St. Augustine, Fla., Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. The storks are now back to their habitat as workers clean up after Hurricane Matthew. (AP Photo)

Large chunks of the northbound lanes tumbled and caved into the beach below, causing local law enforcement to shut access to about six miles of A1A. While most of the state, which reported four storm-related deaths, escaped the most dire predictions of the hurricane’s potential wreckage, it left many communities along a 35-mile strip of the northeast coast in shambles.

“It looks like a war-torn area,” said Patti King, whose home is just a few blocks from one damaged stretch of the highway. “It’s shocking. Entire parts of the road buckled and fell into the sand. Most of the homes survived, but the road didn’t.”

From Flagler Beach, a tiny town known for its pristine, unobstructed views of the ocean, to St. Augustine, which claims the distinction of being America’s oldest city, Matthew ripped power lines and large oak trees out of the ground and flooded neighborhoods. On Vilano Beach, houses collapsed onto the beach, according to a city official.

No community may have been more affected than Flagler Beach. The close-knit town of classic cinder-block houses has successfully fought commercial development to preserve the mom-and-pop restaurants and shops that give it the “Old-Florida vibe” lost in other places. But developers are not a Category 4 hurricane, which this part of Florida had not seen in decades.

Structurally, most of the town’s homes and businesses fared well, save a few roof shingles and toppled fences. The beach, however, was destroyed. The dunes, the walkways, the right of way and nearly half of the roadway — gone.

After the storm passed, authorities soon realized the highway was gone, too. The state had recently reinforced parts of the roadway, but they were swept away by the force of wind and water.

“It’s going to be a lot of work,” said Jim Troiano, spokesman for the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, as he surveyed the damage along A1A on Saturday.

Florida National Guardsmen were stationed at the border of Flagler and Volusia counties to keep traffic from trying to navigate the unstable road. Frustrated residents attempted to negotiate their way home only to be devastated by what they saw.

“This is pure heartbreak,” Flagler Beach resident Amy Glenn said. “The ocean can wash away our beaches and roads but not our memories.”

Nurse Terri Brendle said she had “never seen anything like it.”

Next weekend is Biketoberfest, a huge motorcycle rally in Florida’s coastal towns that typically draws tens of thousands of bikers. With the A1A closed through this stretch, traffic will have to be diverted.

“We are going to lose a lot of business,” said Tony Lulgjuraj, who owns a local business with his brother. State officials said repairing and fortifying the roadway could take months.

Farther north along A1A is Crescent Beach, which sits on a narrow strip of land with the ocean on one side and the Mantanzas River on the other. Some homes there flooded with more than three feet of water. On one lot, only the stilts remained.

In the Summer Haven neighborhood, the hurricane tossed around heavy boulders put in place a few years ago to reinforce an old road in the area. Some ended up in residents’ yards.

“It was a solid mass of water and foam and debris. I saw pieces of the old highway float by,” said Bill Meeler, who watched the storm from his beachside home.

Then there was the Hut, a popular beach house that dates to the 1800s. The storm ripped away parts of its front, toppling a coquina stone fireplace and fully exposing the claw-foot tub.

“My heart is breaking. This was my childhood stomping ground,” said Liz Bennett, who had come to check on her mother’s property nearby.

Still farther north, in St. Augustine, four National Guard troopers in camouflage and with rifles slung over their shoulders blocked cars from driving across the Bridge of Lions from the historic downtown to the barrier islands there. Some residents walked or biked across the bridge, surfboards under their arms.

As of Saturday evening, there was no power or sewage service, and some parts of the city lacked water service, Mayor Nancy Shaver said. The city suffered significant damage, but it would have been worse if not for a 20-mile shift in Matthew’s path out to sea as it neared St. Augustine, she said.

“We will make them shine again,” she said of the City Hall building and a historic church. “We are 451 years old. We expect to get to 452.”

Meanwhile, just a few miles away, there was another kind of damage assessment underway.

First United Methodist Church ships hundreds of pumpkins in from New Mexico every year for its annual youth-group fundraiser. But the storm scattered the stockpile over several blocks. Some pumpkins rested in the parking lot of the burger restaurant down the street, while others were discovered badly scabbed and broken at a nearby gas station.

“They just floated away,” said Lauren Birkhimer, 17.

About a quarter of the pumpkins are believed to be lost forever, while others may be too damaged to be sold, group members said. “We’re still assessing the damage,” said Birkhimer, the co-president of the youth group. “It’s our biggest fundraiser of the year.”

Susan Cooper Eastman in St. Augustine and Lacey McLaughlin in Daytona Beach contributed to this report.

Courtesy: Washington Post