- Bo Emerson The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A month and a half ago, Hurricane Irma knocked half of Florida off the power grid, wreaked $62 billion in damage and killed 132 people.
On Saturday, Oct. 28, more than 100,000 people will converge on Northern Florida to watch the University of Georgia and the University of Florida pursue that timeless dance on the gridiron at Jacksonville’s EverBank Field. The football fans will see that the Sunshine State has been hard at work repairing the damage from Irma.
But they will also see many reminders of the wreckage.
Jacksonville’s biggest hotel, the Hyatt Regency Riverfront, flooded during the storm, and it remains closed until the end of the month. The hotel boasts 116,000 square feet of meeting space and 951 rooms, many of which it is likely were booked by fans going to the game. Those who made reservations ahead of time have sought lodging elsewhere.
“In our county, damage to the beach was minimal,” said Patty Jimenez, of Visit Jacksonville. “The beaches were back open the following day after the storm. What’s left is big surf.”
That’s not necessarily true farther south. Ponte Vedra Beach, 20 minutes down the coast, suffered greater beach erosion, Jimenez said, with some damage to waterfront homes.
The Jacksonville Beach Pier, which is nearly a quarter of a mile long, is also closed, but locals can’t blame Irma for that; it remains closed due to the previous storm, Hurricane Matthew, from October 2016.
Jacksonville Beach, which just finished a renourishing project on the beach and a planting of sea oats, lost some of that progress to Irma, said Chris Hoffman, a member of the Jacksonville Beach City Council.
She said fall weather has also made the beach more dangerous. Hoffman said fall weather has brought more “run-outs,” pulling hapless swimmers beyond their depth and necessitating more rescues. More clueless visitors are expected on football Saturday. “We know that when we have a lot of out-of-towners, we need to be on high alert for ocean rescues.”
Football fans who stay on the Georgia side of the state line will find hurricane damage there, too. A quarter of the boardwalk crossovers, providing beach access across the dunes of St. Simons, were destroyed by Irma, according to Kathryn Downs, communications manager with the Glynn County Board of Commissioners.
The beaches may be less picturesque than usual, but Georgia’s female football fans can be depended upon to improve the view, said Hoffman, herself a Floridian. “The Georgia girls dress up for the game,” she said. “The Florida girls wear flip-flops and tank tops, but the Georgia girls wear dresses and nice shoes. I guess it’s tradition.”