Nov. 07--Strips of wood still jut from large mounds of sand and sea oats along the strip of Florida A1A outside Wes Talton's Vilano Beach home. It is one of just a couple of houses in the area that survived Hurricane Matthew's slow crawl up the Florida coast a month ago.
Though mostly elevated with the garage on the ground floor, the house still suffered extreme flooding. Talton said he wears a mask while working to clear out his ruined belongings. He isn't even sure the structure is safe for him, his wife and his dog, but they stay there anyway because they have no choice.
"This is like a war zone here," Talton said, gesturing down the road at the heaps of sand and wood along the highway. "What a nightmare. The county has been very unclear about when it's all getting picked up or not."
Talton's home is one of what seems like countless houses along a 10-mile stretch of A1A that bore the brunt of Matthew's glancing blow. Evidence of the Category 3 hurricane remain -- and St. Johns County officials estimate it will be months or longer before things nudge toward normal.
For residents, the aftermath is frustrating.
A month since Matthew, property owners don't know any more than they did the morning after the storm. Hills of debris still line the highway, houses teeter over the water, insurance companies have not knocked on doors, and it could be months before traction catches.
Preliminary assessments report approximately 1,200 homes suffered substantial damage in the storm. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has yet to release a cost figure for damaged private property, but St. Johns County estimates about $138 million in damage to its public infrastructure, including $120 million for beaches lost to erosion.
X marks the damage
Across the street from Talton, a house wears a bright orange X near its front door. It warns homeowners and residents to stay away from a potentially unsafe structure. Sometimes the warning is the only sign of possible structural damage. This time the danger is visible.
The home's floor, no longer supported by sand, dangles. Large sheets of concrete, formerly part of the garage, rest on the ground below. The paver driveway suddenly ends, shifting abruptly from bricks to sand and then to nothing as it tapers down beneath the house.
The image is common in post-hurricane South Ponte Vedra and Vilano, where waves relentlessly pounded away at the foundations of so many structures. Some houses now offer ocean views from the front yard. Here, at these places, entire walls caved under the force of hurricane's wind and waves.
According to Howard White, building official for St. Johns County, 1,109 homes in the county suffered substantial damage either from wind, flooding or coastal erosion. In addition to those, he said, the county found 65 homes with enough damage they could be prohibitively expensive to rebuild. These are the homes that will remain uninhabitable for some time.
By county standards, substantial damage means simply that 50 percent or more of the house was damaged, but it does not necessarily mean unlivable and it definitely does not mean condemned.
Real work just starting
White said his employees have not condemned any building as a result of Matthew. His department's work, though, has just begun.
Now that the initial assessment of the oceanfront homes is finished, the building department will fine-tune those records and help owners figure out what exactly needs to be done to bring their damaged homes to code.
It isn't the only department whose workload increased after Hurricane Matthew.
As residents dump damaged belongings, broken docks and flood-tainted appliances by the roadside, the county continues to try to control the debris. As soon as first responders declared communities safe for re-entry, public and private trucks began the cleanup effort.
It's still a long way from finished. However, every street in the county will receive an initial pickup by early November, with subsequent passes as needed for areas with substantial damage.
By the end of October, the county had collected 158,000 cubic square yards of debris. It continues its sweeps.
Don Blaser, whose oceanfront house flooded with sand and water and whose front yard remains stacked with storm detritus, isn't too concerned about the piles along the road -- except that the piles seem to have attracted post-hurricane sightseers who aren't too careful when driving the narrow highway.
"The city has come out and taken a lot of the stuff away," he said. "It's a huge undertaking, way beyond what their normal is. I think we need to cut them some slack."
Of course, Blaser realizes work must still be done. Around his own home, a path cuts through the sand, which accumulated during the storm into a dune about 4 feet high that sets against the backside of his house. Slowly, he and some hired workers have shoveled it back toward the water.
He hasn't been frustrated by the process, though he still isn't exactly sure what his insurance will cover. Insurance adjusters viewed his property two days after Matthew; and Blaser recently sent pictures of his sand-filled kitchen appliances. He thinks his insurance will cover replacements.
What he's been most concerned with, however, is the mold.
"A lot of these people are going to discover the second tragedy they face is, after they get their home fixed up, they will realize the walls are full of mold," Blaser said.
'The house, thank God, was saved'
The Herklotzes, Chuck and Marge, a couple in their 80s, returned to their South Ponte Vedra Beach home to find half the yard washed away. The missing sand left pipes exposed and broken. Water, they said, was spewing out onto the beach.
"The house, thank God, was saved," Marge Herklotz said. However, they lost all their decking and a large portion of their sand.
Insurance will cover very little of the damage, she said. Flood insurance covers only what happened inside their home -- and not what Matthew did to their backyard. Still, the sand must be replaced. Marge Herklotz said they've prepared to pay out of pocket for 18 loads at $275 per load.
They aren't the only ones who lost sand. Homes along the beach now balance precariously on cliffs, with white pipes exposed like bones in the sand and sod patches hanging like sheets over the precipices.
A preliminary damage assessment compiled by St. Johns County estimates countywide cost of renourishing sand on the beaches $120 million -- and that doesn't include what residents themselves will be responsible for replacing.
"We feel like we'd love to have some help," Marge Herklotz said. "I mean, we had a huge deck here. We had a shower and a staircase here. All that's gone now. All out in the ocean."
Back down the beach, Talton still isn't sure how much insurance will cover.
"Flood insurance, homeowners insurance and FEMA are sort of helping out," he said. "All I've done is talked to guys, and my homeowners [insurance] hasn't even been here."
As the storm surged, ocean water and water from the nearby Intracoastal Waterway rose, flooding into Vilano Beach. The two bodies of water, he said, met in his garage.
He lost mostly everything the water covered -- holiday paraphernalia, family pictures, speakers, recording gear, an old vintage organ.
He's piled the soggy possessions in front of his house, waiting for the county to come and collect it.
"Just memories," Talton said, looking at the pile. "That's all they are now."
Amanda Williamson: (904) 359-4665
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