Floodwater, far more than wind, has been the story of Hurricane Matthew.
But for the Matanzas Riverkeeper, the rush of the flood created a terrible confluence: The river for which he’s spent years fighting nearly destroyed his own southern St. Johns County office.
“It’s kind of ironic,” laughs Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon wryly. “I’ve got a lot of friends who are like: Damn, Neil -- the river jumped up and bit ya.”
The river, part of the Intracoastal Waterway, surged over its banks last Friday, flooding Neil Armingeon’s tiny office at the historic Genung’s Fish Camp in Crescent Beach.
“If you see that video, it’s a miracle anything is here,” he says of a short clip taken at the height of the storm. “Waves were breaking next to my office.”
A hole punched in the side of the office may ultimately have saved it, Armingeon believes, the weight of water keeping the building from floating away.
Still, the damage was extensive. “There were dozens of crabs in here,” he says. “Paper and leaves and stinking water and sand.”
Armingeon doesn’t blame the river that he loves and works for. “That’s nature,” he says.
But his years of environmental advocacy means he views the 100-year storm in the context of a changing environment and warming seas.
“Climate change is radically altering all of this,” he says, gesturing at a deceptively calm, blue river. “This is actually the healthiest river in Florida, but it is threatened on all sides.”
He points to a development under construction just across the SR 206 bridge, allowed to build twice the number of homes it was originally zoned for. Such development pressures – with their attendant pesticide, fertilizers and stormwater runoff, threaten the water quality in the river. But encroaching development also puts more homes in the path of rising water.
“Come east one-eighth of a mile [from the new homes] and there’s a boat laying there [by the side of the road],” says Armingeon. “It’s just an example that the whole system is out of whack.”
This storm punished indiscriminately, of course – including many of his neighbors, whose homes were destroyed by the floodwaters. “When I drive through these neighborhoods and you see everything people own -- all the stuff they have -- and you just think, God. It’s a lot of emotion.”
Like other survivors of the storm, Armingeon briefly wondered if the rebuild was worth it. Those thoughts didn’t last.
“We’re going to try to ride it out,” he says. “It’s important that I stay here.”
Any doubt erased by the river, no longer in his office, but always on his horizon.