ANASTASIA ISLAND — Hardly anyone had stayed on this island as Hurricane Matthew rolled north up Florida's east coast. And now, the day after the storm, many of the residents were stuck in hotels and shelters in nearby St. Augustine, unable to drive back home over the Bridge of Lions, blocked by the National Guard.
That meant fishing buddies Blake Shatto, 21, and Walker Davis, 16, were among the very few who knew what a mess the storm had left behind.
They knew where the big trees fell, which streets were flooded, and whose million-plus dollar sailboats were underwater. Shatto looked through his friend's photos of houses with water up to their doorknobs and sailboats blown into backyards.
Now that most of the water had crept back into the Matanzas River and the Atlantic Ocean, the duo had a busy schedule of moving trees, picking up debris, and checking the bilge pumps at the Conch House Marina where Davis works. The duo became a makeshift shuttle service, offering free rides in their pickup to folks who walked across the bridge.
"This is why we stayed, anyway, to help people. The emergency people wouldn't," Shatto said with a Florida-grown country drawl. "St. Augustine may seem like a tourist thing, but it's really a small town. Everybody looks out for each other. We already checked like 50 houses, all people that are connected to us."
Some residents walked miles in the heat to get home, carrying pillows and suitcases. At least one clutched an orange cat.
Crystal Restrepo, 33, carried Dax, her 3-month-old baby boy, on her back. Her husband, Al Restrepo, 41, carried everything else: clothes, car seat and food.
"I'm not nervous, I'm excited. I feel like finally seeing the house will put my mind at ease," Crystal said. "We left our cat, so I'll be glad to see he's okay."
From the other side of the bridge, it seemed St. Augustine had been exceedingly lucky. The oldest city in America was still intact, and though some restaurants and hotels saw several inches of water flood the floors, little else seemed altered by the storm. But the heart of the town, the island where the character actors and restaurateurs live, faced a tougher battle.
Many of the homes in the island's neighborhoods still had standing water up to their doorsteps. The water was starting to recede on Tradewind Lane, leaving space for the Porter family to air dry their golf clubs, playhouses and other items. Ashley Porter and her husband spent so much time helping neighbors prepare their homes for the storm they simply ran out of time to leave, she said. But staying at home allowed them to get all of their personal items off the floor and out of the water that leaked in. Nothing was ruined but their hardwood floors, she said.
"Our house was like a giant pool and our yard was like a lake, it was so cool," said 10-year-old Zoey Porter, as she danced around her mom, dad, brother and sister in their front yard. "We had to go through the window to get out."
Davis and Shatto's houses and families were fine, though their mother's weren't happy they stayed on the island through the storm. They felt happy to be helpful, Shatto said. They grew up in south St. Augustine, only ever leaving the island for trips to places like Walmart and Chilis, and they felt like they needed to protect their home.
"The storm was bad, but our boats made it and that's all that matters to us," Shatto said. "Our boats are our vehicles, baby, that's all we need. Everything is on the island."