“Evacuate, evacuate, evacuate,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said in the days before Hurricane Matthew struck the north coast of Florida. “Unfortunately, this storm is going to kill people.” People of the “First Coast” heeded the governor, and casualties were slight, though this may be little comfort to anyone who lost a friend or family member.
Here in the Jacksonville area, Matthew actually may have resulted in a net gain of lives. The slow-moving traffic of the evacuation, torrential rain and gusting winds combined to prevent the usual traffic fatalities and drive-by shootings that dominate our news on any given weekend.
Looking at the storm from the narrow point of view of marine infrastructure presents an entirely less-happy perspective. We suffered nothing short of “dockapocalypse.” To call the swath of territory between Daytona Beach and the Georgia border the Florida “shore” is an understatement. There are actually five parallel shores along much of this 80-mile stretch—the beach itself, the east and west banks of the Intracoastal Waterway and the east and west banks of the St. Johns River.
Our own dock in Green Cove Springs lost its deck. Our marina, however, fared pretty well. The recreational pier at Reynolds Yacht Center is the second of 11 piers from north to south on the river. Tugs, barges and other large craft came down from Jacksonville to seek refuge and filled Pier One, thus providing a huge breakwater. As Matthew approached and came abeam of us, winds howled from the northeast. As the storm passed, winds shifted to the northwest.
The mass of big vessels shielded the marina from the worst of the wind and waves, particularly during the northwest phase. All of us on the coast also benefited from Matthew’s slight eastward shift from its predicted path. That extra 20 miles greatly reduced the chance that we would see hurricane-force winds 30 miles inland. I would guess we were topping off at about 60 to 65 knots along the river.
The Navy once based ships in Green Cove because of the statistical unlikelihood of storm surge; even so, our water levels reached more than 6 feet above normal river heights during Matthew. Most of our docks were awash or underwater, and with wind-driven waves of 3 to 4 feet, the water pounded the underside of the decking like a big hammer.
Looking at the river on Google Earth shows docks so closely spaced that they resemble picket fencing.
On Sunday we took a “disaster tourism” drive of a 50-mile swath of the river, both sides. The docks that were unscathed were the exceptions, which means hundreds, perhaps thousands, were damaged or destroyed on that stretch of river alone.
Many boats still hung from their lifts, which had survived, but with the deck planking gone, owners will have no easy way of getting to them.
The docks that survived were protected by a lee created by a bend in the river or a headland, or they were taller than the average. The lesson: In the absence of shelter, taller is better. Meanwhile, a nor’easter in the forecast will continue the job that Matthew began.