Cities, county draw on Matthew experience as Irma approaches

As of Friday afternoon, it wasn’t clear whether Hurricane Irma would lead officials to turn off water service to barrier islands in St. Johns County — but it was a possibility.


St. Augustine City Manager John Regan said if the storm kept on its projected path, the city would likely suspend water service to Anastasia Island by Sunday afternoon. But, like other officials in the county, he was watching the storm and had yet to make a final decision.

“Right now, I would assume we’re going to isolate the island,” Regan said.

St. Johns County had already announced mandatory evacuations for Evacuation Zone A and Evacuation Zone B beginning at 6 a.m. Saturday.

But by Friday, county spokesman Michael Ryan said the county hadn’t made a decision yet about whether to shut off water service to any of its customers. Hurricane Irma was still far enough away to leave some uncertainty as to whether it would be necessary.

“We don’t at any point want to shut off utilities … if unnecessary,” Ryan said.

County and officials in St. Augustine and St. Augustine Beach were making other preparations as well, and employing lessons learned from experience during Hurricane Matthew.

For Hurricane Matthew, St. Johns County announced that water supplies would be cut off after 8 p.m. on Oct. 6 to barrier islands east of the Intracoastal Waterway, which included customers with St. Johns County, the city of St. Augustine and the Jacksonville Electric Authority. Hurricane Matthew struck in full force on Oct. 7.

“Probably the most significant lesson we learned [during Hurricane Matthew] is we cannot over-communicate the fact that the utilities in all likelihood will be suspended … in the event of a storm the size of Irma,” Ryan said.

The reason for both St. Johns County and St. Augustine for shutting off water service would be the danger of damaging the system. If there were to be a major break during a hurricane in an evacuated area, crews wouldn’t be able to fix it and the city’s water storage could be jeopardized, Regan said.

But people should be evacuated well before water service gets cut off, if that happens, officials said.

What happened during Hurricane Matthew helped the city and county learn for future storms, officials said. After the storm, the city produced an after-action report of the city’s preparation and response and plans for change.

Among other lessons learned, the storm allowed St. Augustine officials to see what flooding from a major hurricane would bring to the city.

“We have a better understanding of what the storm surge looks like. … We know which parts of our community will be directly impacted,” city Fire Chief Carlos Aviles said.

That allows the city to set up critical items, like special trucks and equipment, ahead of time in the right places, he said.

The city, as it did during Hurricane Matthew, is preparing equipment and strengthening its infrastructure such as protecting electrical equipment at its wastewater treatment plant and pumping down lift stations that transport sewage.

After Matthew, city officials created a photo inventory of every pump station in the city so that crews who come in to help from out of town will know where to find everything, said Martha Graham, public works director.

Also, debris removal contracts are already in place, Regan said.

Hurricane Matthew also gave the city’s Planning and Building Department experience with the most flood-prone areas, said department director David Birchim. Now the crews there are ready to go first to those areas after a hurricane to assess damage in hopes of opening the door for federal assistance, he said.

St. Augustine Beach made some adjustments after Matthew, also.

Before the storm struck St. Augustine Beach, Mayor Rich O’Brien called on Gov. Rick Scott and the county’s help to get sand placed at A Street to block the beach access point and prevent flooding. That worked.

This time around, though, beach officials decided to have sand ready to go for hurricane season — and enough to block the Ocean Trace Road beach access point, too.

O’Brien called Scott again for Hurricane Irma to get the clearance quickly to place the sand. As of Friday, sand was in place.

The county placed sand at the east end of Pope Road in St. Augustine Beach, and several other locations around the county.