Coastal residents return home to assess damage, start rebuilding

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After more than two days working to maintain order and help others at one of the county’s emergency shelters, Clay Carmichael returned to chaos Saturday night when he and his brother-in-law made it back to his coastal home following Hurricane Matthew’s disastrous run up Florida’s coast.

“I just spent 60 hours working at Pedro Menendez [High School] and came back here and it’s a disaster,” Carmichael said Sunday morning as neighbors and colleagues dragged soaked rugs, furniture and bedding from his Summer Haven home.

With his belongings drying under the warming sun, the principal of Pedro Menendez High School said he had lived in the house since 1997 and had never filed an insurance claim before. Carmichael’s school was one of eight St. Johns County schools converted to an emergency shelter for those forced from their homes during mandatory evacuations of low-lying areas as the powerful Category 4 storm approached the coast.

Although Matthew never made landfall and was downgraded to a Category 3 storm by the time it ran north along the county’s coastline, the storm did considerable damage with its punishing winds and monstrous storm surge that washed out dunes, damaged roads and flooded homes.

As the sun came up Sunday, residents on Anastasia Island and points south had the their first full day of work ahead of them as they started digging out from damage left in Matthew’s wake.

County officials opened the island back to property owners on Saturday at 4 p.m., after a day of urging people to remain patient while authorities surveyed neighborhoods making sure they were clear for a safe return.

From the Bridge of Lions, south along State Road A1A, business owners and homeowners were hard at work removing plywood and storm shutters, clearing yard debris and, much like Carmichael, working to recover from flood damage.

Trees and limbs were down throughout the lettered and numbered streets of St. Augustine Beach, and there was plenty of evidence of flooding as people lined their front yards with soaked items to dry in the sun.

In Summer Haven plenty of Carmichael’s neighbors were doing the same thing. That neighborhood, just south of the Matanzas Inlet, was among the hardest hit along the St. Johns County coast, County Administrator Michael Wanchick said at a Saturday news conference.

Dan Densmore was out on his bicycle surveying the damage to a neighbor’s house just behind Carmichael’s. The neighbor, Mike Smith, lost two palm trees from his front yard that had fallen and blocked his street.

Densmore said the damage varied in severity throughout the neighborhood. Many lost the docks from behind their homes, but his remained intact.

“I have no idea how that happened,” he said.

His house didn’t flood, but his garage got about 6 inches of water.

“We skated out of this,” Densmore said, standing among his belongings scattered, drying, in his June Lane driveway.

The view from there, looking east, gave an idea of what those living in the neighborhood nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Matanzas River had to contend with.

From that vantage point, one can see under a raised portion of State Road A1A with the large homes, built along Old A1A, looming in the distance. With the neighborhood fences to Densmore’s east washed out, it appeared as though the ocean rushed just under the highway, flooding the neighborhood.

A short trip to the northeast hinted at Mother Nature’s power. Beyond those large homes that can be seen from Densmore’s driveway, the ocean washed out a roughly 200-yard portion of Old A1A, turning it to rubble and littering the coast with the seawall rocks that were supposed to hold back the surge.

It was that surge that made it into Carmichael’s home. Throughout different rooms, debris lines suggested the water got as high as 18 inches — high enough to wash debris into a bathtub and a toilet.

Charlene Beymer, another neighbor, was dragging items from Carmichael’s home. She had damage at her property but not as bad as Carmichael. She said the high school principal is well thought of in the community and neighbors appreciate the work he and his family put in at the emergency shelter.

“He and his wife are the heroes in this,” Beymer said. “And that’s why some of the people who have damage to their house are here to help first.”

As Carmichael surveyed the damage he said he was happy that everyone was safe.

“It’s just stuff right?” he said. “It’s really God’s way to remind you what’s important.”

Carmichael left his house Wednesday night to run the shelter with his wife and 11-year-old daughter. He said he was going to be hard at work in the coming weeks as he needed the house “livable” prior to the arrival of a young girl the family is adopting in about a month.

In a way, he said, having the responsibility of running the shelter to pull him away from his home was for the best.

“There was nothing that I could do here,” Carmichael said, standing in his side yard.

“And it was probably better for me up here,” he said, tapping his finger to his temple.