Q: How extensive was the damage from Hurricane Matthew in St. Johns County?

A: While we were fortunate that damage was not more widespread, some neighborhoods have been devastated by storm surge, flooding and in some areas with sewer systems, backups in home and businesses. More than 2,000 homes in St. Johns County have reported significant damage. This was the first major hurricane to hit this area since Dora more than 50 years ago. The weather service warned us in a closed briefing that if the wind speed died down the water damage might be even greater in St. Johns County. They were absolutely right about that. In some areas of the county, the water damage from Matthew was worse than Dora.

Q: This is an affluent community; weren’t most of the damages covered by insurance?

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A: There are other significant benefits available to people who are covered by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and experience substantial damage. For homes with mortgages, insurance is required if you are in a high risk area for flooding. Unfortunately, many homeowners and renters I spoke to who experienced major damage did not have flood insurance. Flood damage is not covered by normal homeowner’s policies. FEMA does have some loans available to help people who are uninsured, but the benefits in the wake of a storm like this are much greater for people covered by the National Flood Insurance Program. Many homes experienced damages that exceeded the limits of their flood insurance coverage, if they were lucky enough to have it. In addition to the National Flood Insurance Program, there are other excess policies that homeowners can purchase if they want better insurance coverage for their property. It is important to understand what isn’t covered by flood insurance. Unless a special rider has been added to your policy, seawalls, docks and boats are not covered.

Q: What lessons do you believe were learned from this experience?  

A: I am grateful that people heeded the evacuation. We experienced deadly storm surge even though we didn’t get a direct hit by this powerful storm. Governor Scott did a great job getting out front and calling for the evacuation. It was no exaggeration when he pleaded with people to leave vulnerable areas because this storm had the potential to take lives … still it took a heavy toll on homes and businesses in coastal, low lying areas.

This is the first disaster that I have experienced where so many people have lost their homes, businesses and investment properties. I have many personal friends who have experienced catastrophic losses as a result of a storm event. Almost every year that I have served in elected office I have written articles about preparing for hurricane season. A part of that preparation is reminding citizens to review their homeowners policies before storm season. I have a deeper understanding of how critical that part of emergency preparation is in the wake of this storm.  

Q: What will the state do for beach erosion and seawalls for the North Vilano area that suffered more critical erosion?

A: That area represents more than seven miles of beach. The Florida Department of Transportation has begun to work on plans to protect their road corridor. Likewise, residents and investors in this area are working in groups to get seawalls erected to protect their properties. It is my understanding that seawalls to protect private property can only be paid for by the private property owners.

As of Dec. 3, there is a discussion about building an emergency beach dune in this area to protect the remaining homes. How that project could be paid for and the exact cost is a work in progress involving multiple regulatory agencies. If that course is taken, it will necessarily follow that this section of beach will need to become part of a regular beach renourishment program. Those programs are costly and when there is little beach access, those costs land heavily on private property owners and the local government with a match from the state and little federal funding.

For decades, North Vilano’s beaches were wide and relatively stable. They began eroding at a fast pace about a decade ago when, as a county commissioner, I was able to get some emergency sand from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that was leftover from another project and could be placed on the eroding beaches. That effort was rejected by some homeowners in the area who refused to grant easements needed to apply the sand to the beach.

A few years later, as erosion continued to progress, the state agreed to allow seawalls to be built more aggressively than under previously existing rules thanks to the hard work of my predecessor, Representative Renuart. Some of those seawalls failed in this storm event. The storm surge took a terrible toll on the beaches south of Guana State Park and north of the Vilano town center, destroying a number of older homes built before our current building codes was in place. Additionally, tons of beach sand was washed away along with septic systems and beach walkovers. Homes built under the newer building code appear to have fared the storm well.

Representative Cyndi Stevenson may be reached at (904) 823-2300.

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