ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - On this day in the Nation's Oldest City, it's hard to look anywhere and not see damage caused by Hurricane Irma. We just wanted to give our viewers a different - and closer - perspective, so we took to the water: on a Waverunner.
My First Coast News colleague and co-anchor Jessica Clark and I launched the watercraft at the St. Augustine Lighthouse launch on Salt Run. First stop, the Conch House restaurant marina and what's left of its docks. A casual glance quickly revealed twisted and mangled flotsam of metal, concrete and styrofoam, sheared away from pilings, no match for the teeth of Irma.
Just hundreds of feet away, only the bow of a yacht, still attached to its mooring ball, protruded above the surface, another victim of the second major hurricane to visit St. Augustine in just 11 months.
From Salt Run we headed north toward Porpoise Point, where St. Augustine greets the open ocean. Our mission was to get a surfer's view of homes undermined by Irma in South Ponte Vedra, one of which we knew had succumbed and fallen to the beach below, just a few footsteps from the tide.
But as the tide neared its afternoon high, enormous swells literally caused by the wake of Irma left no safe passage beyond the jetty extending from the Point. We had to turn back, opting to head under the Vilano Bridge and north to the restaurant Cap's On The Water, on the east shore of the Intracoastal Waterway across from Northeast Florida Regional Airport.
Owner Bernard de Raad and many of his employees were cleaning up and in good spirits. The popular restaurant had fared well, but wasn't left untouched.
"About here, about 20 inches," de Raad gestured with his hand against the wall in his kitchen, showing how high the water had risen during the peak of Irma. "Matthew was, like, three feet - like, here," he continued, raising his hand up even with the top edge of the diamond-plate kick board at the bottom of one of the swinging doors.
As de Raad explained, Cap's began as a fish camp in the 1940s. Given his experience with Hurricane Matthew and his generally gregarious nature, you'd think he's seen it all in the 19 years since he bought the property, but no.
"For the first time ever, I stayed [during Irma]," he said. "I live right around the corner. I was pretty scared."
De Raad explained that he'd lost equipment and food supply during Matthew, which insurance had covered. This time he decided to store all food on shelves at least three feet above the floor. He also loaded all moveable equipment on to trucks and took it to higher ground. He did lose power but only for six hours, sparing him any lost inventory.
From Cap's we pointed back south, stopping at Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor, where we talked with a couple and their two kids, busily working aboard their yacht. Theirs was the closest boat at Camachee to the outer Intracoastal Waterway, and they pointed out that not only was their vessel unscathed, there was no other notable damage in the more sheltered areas.
Only a few revs of the engine away though, was what we wryly decided to call another 'UFO'. That is, Unidentified Floating Object, although this monolith of ragged concrete - about 200 feet long - wasn't floating as much as resting. Even the family aboard the boat didn't seem to know where the concrete behemoth had come from, let alone how it came to be where it was. They only said that it hadn't been there before Irma.
By this time the tide had just begun to ebb. We were determined to make one more attempt at the open waters off Vilano Beach and South Ponte Vedra. This time we found success shooting the perilous gap between the jetty and slightly less ominous swells than we'd found earlier. A few miles north of Porpoise Point we finally spotted the house that had fallen from its perceh among the dunes, and several more neighboring homes that appeared to be just another storm away from the same fate. We also saw a number of intrepid surfers too tantalized by the waves to miss the opportunity, despite the danger.
On our way back toward the St. Augustine waterfront we passed yet another derelict dock fragment smack dab in the middle of the narrows between Porpoise Point and Anastasia Island, seemingly waiting to imperil any boater caught unaware.
Our final stop before heading back to launch would be a boat whose rigging was a snarl of twisted and unrecognizable parts. The boat - large enough for living aboard - was a floating irony, christened "Celebration" and ported in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were even harder-hit by Irma than the First Coast was.
As we descended back on Salt Run, we approached the shadow of the St. Augustine Lighthouse under what was now a westward sun in the oncoming evening. As we finished our daylong odyssey, we couldn't help noting the lighthouse as a study in contrast to all we'd observed in the preceding hours. Unlike so much of what we'd seen, it has withstood countless storms in its 143 years.
It will, no doubt, witness countless more.
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