“The shock of a double whammy”—are Hurricanes Matthew and Irma the new normal for St. Augustine?
St. Augustine, Florida, is known as the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in the continental United States. Situated on the Atlantic Coast at an outlet of the Matanzas River, the city was founded by Spanish Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565. The historic city’s most famous landmark is the large stone fort Castillo de San Marcos. Spain controlled the city for 200 years, except for a brief tenure by the British government. In 1819, Spain ceded St. Augustine along with the rest of Florida to the United States.
In the late 19th century, St. Augustine began its new life as a tourist destination when, in 1883, industrialist Henry Flagler vacationed there and decided to greatly expand its infrastructure for winter vacationers. In 1885 he purchased several local railroads and combined them to form the Florida East Railroad Company and in 1888 constructed a railroad bridge across the St. Johns River (just north of St. Augustine, thus opening the entire Atlantic Coast to development. Beginning in 1887, he financed the construction of the Ponce de Leon Hotel and the nearby Hotel Alcazar, and purchased the existing Casa Monica Hotel, as winter getaways for the wealthy families of the Gilded Age.
Today, the city retains its historic charm—the Castillo is preserved and operated as a National Historic Site, the Ponce de Leon Hotel forms the central campus of Flagler College, the Alcazar Hotel is occupied by city administrative offices and the Lightner Museum, and the Casa Monica remains an upscale hotel. The historic grid of streets has largely been retained in the town’s center, with St George Street, leading from the Castillo to Flagler College, being the main center of the tourist industry. Portions of the city’s historic attractions are overseen by the National Park Service (the Castillo), the City of St. Augustine, and the University of Florida.
Last year flooding from Hurricane Matthew as it passed by the coast of Florida led to a chance for the city archaeologist of St. Augustine to make an exciting discovery. A shop owner, whose store had flooded, wanted to replace the floor, but provided the city archaeologist to excavate before the new floor was installed. The discovery of human remains has led researchers to suggest this was the site of the "oldest parish church in the United States." (Photo courtesy of Faux Paws, a shop on St George Street, but not the site of the burials).
Recently, Hurricane Irma, despite making landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast ended up traversing the narrow state and causing extensive damage to Atlantic Coast as well. For a city that has been in existence for nearly 500 years, these back-to-back hurricanes certainly indicates St. Augustine has reached a period of a new normal of coastal flooding.
By Jess Bighood
The New York Times
September 13, 2017
By International Heritage News Network
February 13, 2017