By Sara Girard
Patrick Verwey doesn’t have much left after Hurricane Matthew.
“One bag, two bags, three bags, couple books, these pillows — that’s it,” he said as he pointed to his family’s remaining belongings spread out on a blanket on the sands of Jacksonville Beach.
Verwey, his wife and his 21-year-old stepson evacuated their home in nearby Hanna Park in Naval Station Mayport. But after they left, the structure was destroyed as floodwaters from the hurricane’s storm surge swept through the area.
“It was basically, ‘You have five minutes to go and get out — as far away from here as you can,’” Verwey said of the moment he received a notice to evacuate.
The family packed whatever they could carry, including his stepson’s two pet bearded dragons.
Once the storm had left Florida by Saturday, Verwey received a call from his landlord saying not to bother coming back to their home.
“It’s destroyed,” the landlord said.
Verwey, however, is looking on the positive side of things.
“I’m sure a lot of people went through a lot worse than we did. You know, like lost everything. But at least I have these two,” he said of his wife and stepson.
Before reaching Florida, Matthew wreaked havoc in the Caribbean, killing several hundred in Haiti. Evacuations were issued for Florida and other states along the East Coast, and when it struck the Sunshine State, about 1.2 million lost power.
In all, at least 23 people in the U.S. died, including at least four in Florida.
When Matthew approached Jacksonville Beach early Friday evening, its center was some 40 miles off the coast.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott visited the city Sunday to tour the storm damage, after stating last week that he was worried about the impact of storm surges and flooding in the area.
Verwey’s family stuck out the storm at the Scottish Inn in downtown Jacksonville before they came back to the beach on Sunday.
The family moved to Florida from Pennsylvania in March, looking to start a new life.
“And my new life has got to start right from the bottom again,” Verwey said. “We’re just hoping we can make it back up to Pennsylvania because this is all we have, and that’s where our families are.”
Verwey was one of hundreds of residents who returned to Jacksonville Beach on Sunday to take a look at the damage.
They lined the beach, many collecting a piece of the landmark Jacksonville Beach Pier, which once stretched for a quarter-mile but because of the storm is now missing its back end.
Jennifer Jacobs, a former resident of Jacksonville Beach, walked away with two large pieces of driftwood.
Jacobs already has pieces she collected from the old Jacksonville Beach Pier, which was knocked down by Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
It reopened in 2004 with structural differences, mainly concrete, made to withstand another big storm, but Matthew proved too strong.
“I’m going to take this one home and cut it in half and make some shelves out of it,” the 23-year-old said of her two new pieces.Martin Schramm was on the beach Sunday looking for items with a metal detector. He estimated about 100 to 150 feet of the pier was ripped away by the massive storm surge.
“The power of water is just unbelievable,” the 63-year-old Jacksonville resident said. “They’ll probably rebuild it again. That’s all you can do.”
For now, Florida is concentrating on debris removal and other more immediate measures, which are being backed by federal emergency funding, according to a news release from Scott’s office.
But federal funding hasn’t been approved yet for helping individuals or for work on government buildings, roads and parks, the release says.
As the statewide focus moves toward recovery and rebuilding, Verwey said he’s lucky to have simply survived the storm.
“We’re all alive, and the dragons are safe,” he said of his family and stepson’s pets. “Your situation is never truly hopeless.”