Hurricane Irma’s visit to Jacksonville caused unprecedented flooding and destruction, affecting tens of thousands of people across the First Coast. The wind ripped trees out of the ground, Riverside and San Marco nearly turned into Atlantis, and power had yet to be restored to thousands of people a week after the storm passed. For many people in our area, this was their first real hurricane experience. This was not, however, Jacksonville’s first time getting rocked by a hurricane.
The full effects of Irma on our area have yet to be determined, but the devastation it caused is evident when you walk around the city, especially in the areas closest to the river. Days after the storm dissipated and flood waters receded, there were still trees lying across front yards and dense mud puddles covering what used to be sidewalks. According to early estimates, the damage the storm caused across the whole state could be around $100 billion, potentially making it one of the costliest storms in history.
It wasn’t long ago that Hurricane Matthew blew past us, just off our coast in October 2016. Although it wasn’t a direct hit, it came close enough to cause some serious damage. The most notable casualty of Matthew was the beloved Jacksonville Beach pier, which was built in 2004 to replace the pier that had been destroyed by Hurricane Floyd’s very similar sideswipe in 1999. Matthew also caused some pretty bad flooding in Jacksonville Beach, which was at the time, “unprecedented.” The storm washed away sand dunes, boardwalks and entire homes all down the First Coast, causing around $53 million in damage in Duval and $120 million in St. Johns County.
One comparison that can be made between Irma and Matthew is the nonchalance with which many treated them as they approached. Common wisdom tells us that Jacksonville can’t really get hit due to the inward curvature of our coastline, so most people didn’t take the threat seriously and chose not to evacuate, even when told to do so. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd was scary enough to trigger a historic evacuation and a traffic nightmare, then it missed us. If we can’t get hit, why bother?
Bryan Norcross, Senior Hurricane Specialist for the Weather Channel, did confirm that the old wisdom is partially true. The First Coast’s curve does insulate us from getting a direct hit — from a storm traveling north. While most hurricanes are heading north, we are still particularly vulnerable to anything coming from the east. “Hurricanes can travel in any direction, so we have to assume that unusual events can happen in Jacksonville as well,” Norcross said.
On September 10, 1964, Hurricane Dora barreled into us from the east, making landfall just north of St. Augustine as a Category 2 storm. Residents of the beaches were caught off guard, since common wisdom told them that Jacksonville was safe from hurricanes, and they chose not to evacuate.
Dora knocked out power for over 150,000 people and damaged or destroyed around 4,000 homes. It washed away sand dunes and boardwalks all down our coastline. Houses perched above the sea near Vilano Beach crumbled into the water, the storm surge caused unprecedented flooding, and the beloved Atlantic Beach pier was destroyed. Although Dora was a fairly weak storm, it had a much more dramatic impact at the beach than any other we’ve seen. Like Irma, Dora also pushed enough water into the St. Johns River to cause significant flooding along its banks. Dora caused what today would equal $1.6 billion in damage to our First Coast.
Prior to Dora, the only other major impact on Northeast Florida was an unnamed 1898 hurricane, which came from the east and made landfall near Cumberland Island in Georgia, nearly wiping out the cities in its direct path, including Fernandina Beach. It caused significant flooding in the Jacksonville area, but the city was relatively undeveloped at that time.
What happens next? Norcross hesitated to predict that a devastating storm will imminently hit us, but he urged preparation and suggested that more big storms will eventually come our way. One of the major factors that contributed to the damage here is the extensive development in flood-prone areas with poor drainage and the lax building codes Jacksonville has compared to the ones implemented in Miami after Hurricane Andrew flattened parts of South Florida in 1992.
“It’s true that the odds of a strong hurricane in Jacksonville are a lot lower than they are in Miami, but they are far from zero. Politicians have rolled the dice that no strong storms will come on their watch. The standards will, perhaps, be adjusted after this disaster, but only because it has caused sufficient pain for a large enough number of people,” he said.
All we can really do is be prepared for the worst.
This article was originally published in our Hurricane Irma Recap Issue.