By Donna Hicken
First Coast News
JACKSONVILLE, FL -- No one living today has ever seen Jacksonville experience a category four or five storm. But experts agree it's not a matter of "if" only "when."
It is the very image of peace. One of the slowest flowing rivers on earth. On its way to sea after a 310 mile journey from the swamps of the Everglades.
The St. Johns River defines Jacksonville. We wouldn't be here without it. But our most constant companion could become our greatest adversary in the event of a major hurricane.
"Most people think hurricane evacuation is a beaches thing. It is not just a beaches thing," says Jacksonville's Emergency Operations Chief, Chip Patterson.
And images like these aren't just reserved for those below sea level. In Jacksonville, the surge from a Katrina-like storm would bring a wall of moving water to places far beyond our beaches.
Patterson says there are parts of the city that would be literally under water. He's hoping to drive that message home with dozens of brightly colored poles scattered around the city.
The poles, located at 41 points around Jacksonville, show storm surge levels during hurricanes category one through five. Some of the poles are way inland like Heckscher Drive including the zoo.
In Arlington, Kevin Merriweather's Charter Point neighborhood would be virtually underwater.
"Until you see it, you don't know what a storm surge is. Is that how high the water is supposed to come? And you go, I know about how high my house is and that thing is higher than my home so we would be underwater here," Merriweather says.
The storm surge in a category five hurricane would be 21 feet. The neighborhood sits at 7 feet above sea level so we're talking 14 feet at the high water mark.
And on the northside, even farther from the beach, the water would be higher still.
On Ribault Scenic Drive, the homes are 20 miles inland. Deborah Wyche's eight foot ceilings would be no match. Wyche remembers well when Hurricane Dora swept through Jacksonville back in 1964.
"I remember that night going to bed and tucking the spreads around my bed real tight in case a hurricane came and shook up the house that I would still be in my bed. I was about 6 or 7 years old," Wyche says.
Dora came ashore south of Mayport and her northeast winds sent an eight foot surge into the St. Johns. Dora was just a category one storm when it hit here. Wyche is surprised to hear that her home would be underwater. "I am, I am."
Consider this, when Katrina invaded the gulf, the storm surge on the coast was measured at about 21 to 22 feet, yet inland the water levels topped 30 feet.
The reason, something called the run up effect.
From his lab at the University of Central Florida, Dr. Scott Hagen is working with N.O.A.A. to create new storm surge models. He says the run up effect would take hold in Jacksonville as well.
"If I take a glass of water and throw it on the floor, it's not going to stop where it hits the floor. It's going to run down the floor," Hagen says.
Because of the slight drop in elevation on our portion of the St. Johns and all our creeks and estuaries, the water would get stuck as if in a funnel. And Hagen says while surfers may love the waves generated by a hurricane, you add those to the run up on the river, which he says would be a big factor on the St. Johns, and you've got trouble.
"It only takes a wave with a height of about three feet that will smash through your wall. The average house wall would break from a three foot wave. That's just the power of the water," he says.
Power that's hard to imagine as our St. Johns meanders toward the sea. But now these poles will serve as a constant reminder.
"If you are not planning personally," says Patterson, "you're going to be a disaster victim."
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