ST. AUGUSTINE — When they moved to Florida from Long Island, Jerry and Joan Galasso had just enough money to open a waterfront seafood restaurant near the beach. Their money didn't stretch far enough for a house.
For the first year and a half of their time living south of downtown St. Augustine, the couple stayed with their three children in the Matanzas Innlet Restaurant, making two bedrooms and a living room in the back off a dining area.
Saturday morning, hours after Hurricane Matthew decimated the coast from Flagler Beach to Jacksonville, they went to check on the restaurant. The walk-in freezer was in the middle of the parking lot, the booths smashed against the bar. There were large holes in the walls, and the outdoor gazebo had collapsed. Rocks, shells and sand blanketed the property.
"I would think the best thing is to bulldoze it," Joan Galasso said.
The couple will likely never reopen the restaurant. The hardest part, they said, is telling their 15 employees that they are out of work. Many had been there for 10 years or more. The cook had moved with them from New York 25 years ago.
"This was a family," said Joan, 63. "They all loved each other."
When they bought the building, tucked into a little dip in the land off State Road A1A on the Matanzas Inlet, it was a bait shop. They were drawn to the warm weather. Officials then told them to bank on a storm surge once every 20 years, recalled Jerry, 65. They made it a little more than 25 years without ever filing a flood or wind claim.
Until Hurricane Matthew.
The restaurant was a favorite for many locals and even former University of Florida football coach Steve Spurrier. When Spurrier and the Gators won a national championship, Joan said, the Old Ball Coach came to celebrate on the deck at their restaurant.
Saturday morning, that deck was splintered in what used to be the dining room. A rocky bulwark behind it had completely collapsed. Jerry said the wave that crashed into the building had to be at least 10 feet high.
The Galassos said they had $10,000 in shrimp, chicken, beef and fries in the walk-in freezer. It sat rotting in the sun late Saturday next to an unopened bushel of clams and piles of unshucked oyster shells.
"We always had good oysters," Joan said. "Now they're all over the place. The birds were having a feast here this morning."
At first sight, the couple saw their roof intact from several hundred yards away and thought their restaurant had weathered the hurricane okay. When they turned into the parking lot, they saw the damage the surge had wrought.
Appliances in the kitchen were unrecognizable. The bottom had been ripped off a mural painted on a wall inside — a seaside scene that featured their children's names scrawled on a sailboat, a car and a snorkel. The boat in the mural was called "Babalia," the name the children called Joan when they were babies.
She said her youngest daughter's earliest memory is of sitting in the kitchen, peeling shrimp. The kids are all grown now, but they worked first at the restaurant. The family toiled together through 16 hour days to make it work.
"(We were) a small place. Mom and pop," Joan said. "Not a lot of us left, fighting a trend."
The Galasso parents had ridden out the storm at their home on Butler Beach. There too they had sustained significant damage, losing two cars and a couple of beds as water creeped through their yard and into the first floor from the Matanzas River.
At the restaurant, little was salvageable. In the corner, Jerry had stowed a generator he had planned to use when they lost power. He had taken down a few vintage surfboards that hung from the ceiling. Wooden signs still covered from the walls: "Fresh Crabs" and "We Don't Have Wifi, Talk to Each Other."
On the front door, there was another, smaller and still level above the knob. Jerry pointed to it and laughed:
"Closed for hurricanes."
Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at (727) 893-8804. Follow @zacksampson