How the country’s oldest city weathered Hurricane Matthew

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ST. AUGUSTINE, FL - OCTOBER 8: A man puts up caution tape as people walk by and take photos of the Casablanco Inn the day after Hurricane Matthew hit St. Augustine, FL on Saturday October 08, 2016. Hurricane Matthew plowed north along the Atlantic coast, flooding towns and destroying roads in its path. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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HARI SREENIVASAN: Earlier in the program, we told you about the record-breaking flooding in North Carolina. Hurricane Matthew also left a wake of damage on its way to North Carolina along the coasts of three states.

Billed as the oldest city in America, St. Augustine, Florida, was one of the places that felt the storm’s might. The small coastal town of nearly 14,000, which dates back to the 16th century, is only now emerging from this weekend’s storm.

I was there yesterday.

It looked like one big garage sale on Solana Road in St. Augustine, Florida. But everything in the front yards was contaminated, couches, mattresses, family keepsakes all soaked by the floods after Hurricane Matthew. Families were racing to get it all out before the moisture turned to mold and made its way into the walls.

MAYOR NANCY SHAVER, St. Augustine: When you evacuate, you take only the things that you really find irreplaceable. But this is the whole — these are all the things that may be replaceable, but they’re what give you something to come home to.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mayor Nancy Shaver took us to one of the low-lying areas that was hardest-hit. The sewer pumps were still offline, meaning underground waste was overflowing onto the street. Residents were only allowed back into the area Saturday.

NANCY SHAVER: Your home is where you’re supposed to go to be peaceful, restful, be with your family, sleep, eat. And none of these things are possible in these homes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: One of the homeowners on this block, the city manager, John Regan.

What did you have to throw out?

JOHN REGAN, City Manager, St. Augustine: Everything.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How many feet of water?

JOHN REGAN: My house was two feet of water.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tasked with coordinating the city’s recovery effort, now working furiously on his own.

JOHN REGAN: And these houses are at this level of destruction.

HARI SREENIVASAN: While trying to salvage what he could from his home, he was also trying to prevent more fires like the ones the city has been fighting every night since the storm.

JOHN REGAN: So, and all these houses that have been flooded, when we bring the power back, you got to be sensitive that there’s no short-circuiting.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Regan is luckier than some just up the coast, who will never move back into their homes again. The storm’s waves gouged deep beneath the foundations of some homes, and surge-driven waters lifted and washed away everything they could.

The debris is not limited to the coastline, but inlets as well. Marinas usually full of tourists and boaters are shut down because floating junk is a danger to boats and several docks have lost their moorings.

BILL HUNSICKER, Charter Boat Captain: We’re ready to go fishing, but, at this point, this marina, we can’t get our boats back in here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Bill Hunsicker captains a charter boat for sport fishermen. He says he can last two weeks without customers before he has to make tough decisions.

In the city’s historic Old Town, most businesses remained shuttered, as they dried out and cleaned up.

WOMAN: This is the oldest bar in the oldest city.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The local watering hole that rarely closes stopped for Matthew.

WOMAN: Usually, we have a hurricane party, but, this year, we didn’t have any power. So…

WOMAN: And it was a really bad one. Nobody wanted to be here.

JORGE RIVERA, FirstCoast.TV: So, this is where the bulk of the water came.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Blogger Jorge Rivera wanted to stay and track the storm.

JORGE RIVERA: The water’s up to my waist.

HARI SREENIVASAN: He captured some of the earliest scenes of Matthew’s arrival. Over the weekend, he continued to document its toll.

JORGE RIVERA: This was scary, because it’s not so much that the hurricane is powerful. It’s that you’re in such a vulnerable place.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now he wonders whether it would have been worth it.

JORGE RIVERA: The question is, once they find your body, they say, was he a fool or was he brave? So, I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But Rivera wasn’t alone. Mayor Shaver says almost half the city stayed behind, many who didn’t have the means to evacuate and others who were homeless and out of reach, numbers she hopes to change in the future.

How do you build in resilience to face something like this?

NANCY SHAVER: Well, this is a — we have had 450 years of practice. We are an extraordinarily resilient city. It’s a real community. It has a very rich fabric of reaching out, connecting and helping folks.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That sentiment moved the owners of Le Macaron to hand out sweets to their local firefighters. Recent transplants from France, they’re overwhelmed by the support

STEPHANE JUSKOWIAK, Storeowner: Here, we see this, and it’s — we don’t have this in Europe, in France. I’m sorry to say that, but, here, it’s very different. And we — there was lots of people coming every 15 minutes, saying, hey, we can help us.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This city has soldiered on through challenges for more than 400 years. City hall, which was flooded, reopened to essential personnel today.

Online, a poet shares her experience of hurricane destruction and recovery. Find that at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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