Underwater: Hurricane Matthew drowns former home

It’s not every day the town you called home is hit by a Category 3 hurricane.

St. Augustine, Florida, is the home of my heart. I don’t consider it my hometown because I didn’t grow up there. But it’s where I spent the last five years, and where I moved to the Garden Isle from.

On Friday, Hurricane Matthew slammed into St. Augustine, flooding the streets and leaving destruction in its path. There was also a rumor that alligators from the local Alligator Farm had escaped.

Luckily, there haven’t been reports of death in St. Augustine, although it was reported that a man fell off a bridge and was separated from his wheelchair. He was found by rescue crews holding a garbage can around noon.

It’s a strange feeling, watching these videos and reading these news reports, and knowing if I hadn’t moved, I’d be in the thick of it.

St. Augustine’s claim to fame is that it’s the nation’s oldest city, founded in 1565 by the Spanish conquistador, Juan De Ponce de Leon.

Then, in the 1900s, the railroad man, Henry Flagler, put St. Augustine on the map by building the famous Ponce de Leon Hotel, which is known for having the largest collection of Tiffany’s stained class windows. In the 1960s, the hotel was converted into a private college, named Flagler College.

That’s where I spent four years of my life, working toward a communication degree. Being a student at Flagler, you experience things regular college students don’t. Who else can say they studied at a centuries-old fort, watched an excavation and ate in a dining hall surrounded by Tiffany stained glass?

But on Thursday, William Abare, president of Flagler College, released a statement, saying most of the campus was underwater, and the lower level of the school was flooded.

I graduated from Flalger College in 2014, and I spent the following two years trying to establish a career. I credit St. Augustine with shaping me into the person I am today. It’s where I learned to live on my own, take risks and stick up for myself.

It’s also the town that gave me my start in journalism. I was hired at the local daily paper, The St. Augustine Record, in October 2014. I was the cops and courts and government reporter for St. Augustine Beach.

On Thursday, emergency agencies issued evacuations in preparation for the storm. Some of my friends evacuated, some didn’t.

The next day, I contacted Chuck Mulligan, a spokesman for the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office.

“It’s torn up,” was all he said.

My Facebook feed blew up with people asking where to stay, because all the hotels in Tampa had been filled.

I suddenly caught myself making my own evacuation plans, even though I no longer lived there. My plan was to take my cat and anyone willing to Valdosta, Ga., which is about three hours away from St. Augustine.

But then I realized that if I still lived there, I probably wouldn’t have been able to leave. I would still be working with the paper, and they’ve been keeping the residents up to date as much as possible. I found a picture of one of the staff photographers standing on the bay front, decked out in rain gear, taking pictures. Call me crazy, but storm chasing with Peter Willott sounds like a fun day.

I lived in the Southeast for about 12 years, and there was never once a hurricane. Sure, we’d get warnings, but nothing would ever hit.

Because of that, I’ve become blase about the whole thing. But Friday’s events just show how important it is to heed those warnings and take weather seriously, no matter how much it cries wolf.

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Jenna Carpenter is a reporter for The Garden Island.

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