Feeling Fortunate in Fernandina

Amelia Island after Hurricane Matthew, a look around this barrier island.

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Amelia Islanders were allowed back over the bridges two days after an October hurricane prompted a mandatory evacuation. Most did not know exactly what to expect when they came home.

You can bet thoughts of uncertainty weighed heavily on minds here and elsewhere along America’s southeast coast, for the millions who evacuated from Hurricane Matthew. Thankfully, upon returning home to Amelia Island, most felt relieved. We are feeling fortunate in Fernandina Beach.

Happiest Seaside Town in America

Fernandina Beach happens to be a finalist for Coastal Living magazine’s “Happiest Seaside Town in America.”  If you can imagine a “happiness” gauge, it’s not a stretch to say that when residents arrived back home post-Matthew, the needle on the scale jumped for joy here. Just two days after the town teetered on brink of heartbreak.

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Fernandina Weathered Storm Well

Thankfully, Matthew stayed off shore and weakened from a Cat 4 as it came up the Atlantic Coast from South Florida. Then we got even luckier. The hurricane made a move a bit further east off the Atlantic coast after passing by St. Augustine and Jacksonville. The timing of the turn for Amelia Island couldn’t have been better.

Glimpse scenes since the storm, taken post-Matthew around the island in photo gallery further below. While local residents have had a chance to look around, out-of-towners may be wondering about Fernandina Beach, especially repeat visitors who hold the town in their hearts. Most minds will be eased to see that the place they remember remains intact.

Florida-Georgia Football Weekend

For the road trippers arriving for the football festivities. Those faithful fans who visit each year for the Florida vs. Georgia game. Amelia is ready to host you. Enjoy a celebratory “Sounds on Centre” free outdoor street concert in downtown Fernandina. This is a special performance date added for Georgia-Florida weekend, “The Tailgate Edition” happening Friday, October 28, 2016 from 6 to 8 pm. The evening features the band “Island Vibe.”

Amelia Island Photo Gallery After Matthew

Browse lots of images below. These scenes were taken around Amelia Island, north end to south end, from two days to two weeks after Matthew.

Downtown Fernandina Beach

There’s wonderful news about historic downtown Fernandina’s vintage buildings and homes dating back to the Victorian era. While the town did sustain damage to the Fernandina Harbor Marina and docks (see more about marina further below), downtown businesses and restaurants reopened within a few days after the storm. Fernandina’s grandest historic homes, now bed and breakfast inns, also fared well and are greeting guests.

Atlantic Coast Beaches

It was a pleasant surprise to return and find some areas of the beachfront seemingly spared, with little noticeable beach erosion (based on observation, not “official” surveys). The city of Fernandina’s beach parks, in particular, seemed to weather the storm well — Main Beach, Seaside Park and North Beach. The sand dunes at Jasmine Street beach access looked particularly lovely (see photo gallery).

Fernandina’s Main Beach & Boardwalk

A couple of years ago, the city of Fernandina built a new section of elevated boardwalk at Main Beach. As pictured, after the hurricane it was looking good, every board in place!

What is said to be America’s oldest Putt Putt located oceanfront at Fernandina’s Main Beach looked untouched, as well. Sandy Bottom’s oceanfront restaurant/bar at Main Beach is open. Besides Main Beach, the wooden beach walkways at other city beach access points visited (Jasmine Street, North Beach, Seaside Park) seemed to survive the storm well.

Fernandina’s Seaside Park

At the city’s Seaside Park located at the intersection of South Fletcher and Sadler Road, the landmark beach bar, Sliders Seaside Grill, quickly reopened after the hurricane, including the oceanfront tiki bar. No doubt the wind/surf was rough during the storm, however. A sunrise photo taken at Seaside Park shows one of the sign posts on the beach at a severe angle (see photo gallery.) It seemed the sea threw extra sand around the dunes here.

Compared to the city beach parks noted above, the Florida State Parks at the tips of the island appear to have notable loss of sand/dunes (parts of Fort Clinch on the northend and Amelia Island State Park on the southend).

As far as structures, besides damage to ocean piers, the island’s western riverfront marina/docks seemed to bear the brunt of the storm, namely Fernandina’s downtown city-owned marina.

The historic buildings nearest to the riverfront, such as the old train depot circa 1899 at the foot of Centre Street, now a tourism information center, escaped major damage and quickly reopened. Same goes for the other downtown buildings, restaurants and shops.

Fernandina Harbor Marina Damage

Right on the waterfront, the signature red shack at the downtown marina boat ramp, Atlantic Seafood, is open for business. Also, Brett’s Waterway Cafe, the restaurant overlooking the marina, has reopened.

Unfortunately, however, much of the Fernandina Harbor Marina will be closed for a long time. For transient mariners passing by, there is no short term dockage at Fernandina Harbor Marina and the fuel dock is also closed.  However, the south side of the marina is the new spot to get aboard boat tours, (see more below about Amelia River Cruises). One can still stroll the south side boardwalk along the riverfront in this area. Needless to say, the sunsets remain sensational, viewed from along Fernandina’s downtown riverfront.

Also note that the Nassau County public boat ramp on the north end (Dee Dee Bartels), was damaged and is temporarily closed. UPDATE: Related article “Fernandina Beach Marina Makeover

Amelia River Cruises Open

While the spot to hop aboard has moved to the south side of Atlantic Seafood (gravel parking lot), Amelia River Cruises is still operating from the open side of Fernandina’s downtown marina at dock 8 (a temporary ticket booth is situated there).

Amelia River Cruises Seen Off Fort Clinch Shoreline 10-17-2016
Amelia River Cruises Seen Off Fort Clinch 10-17-2016

When visiting Fernandina, Amelia River Cruises’ narrated sightseeing boat excursions departing downtown are one of the best tours available to take in beautiful scenery while out on the waterways and learn about local history and nature.

Amelia Island Charter Fishing/Tours

Other local charter boats/fishing trips are still available from Amelia Island’s captains who will get guests out on the water. Charters are now departing from the Amelia Island Marina (at island’s entrance/exit near the Shave Bridge off  A1A). The other marina where visitors/tourists can board charters (do make reservations in advance), is at the 14th Street Marina at 1620 North 14th Street, home to Leaders & Sinkers Baitshop.

Fort Clinch State Park

Florida State Park located in Fernandina Beach (on Amelia Island’s northend), has reopened, including both the riverfront and oceanside campgrounds. The Civil War-era fortress is also open for touring. This park is beautiful, and a must-see attraction when visiting (the largest, natural area remaining on Amelia Island). It was wonderful to visit after Matthew and find the tree canopy of ancient oaks and maritime forest still looking lovely.

Fort Clinch Pier Damaged

Fort Clinch has miles of shoreline on the island — both along the Atlantic Coast and riverbank. The beach boardwalks are open, so visitors can still access the beachfront within this sprawling 1,400+ acre state park. Unfortunately, the beachfront area adjacent to the Fort Clinch jetty side of the pier appears to have suffered erosion. Also, the Fort Clinch fishing pier sustained major damage and is closed.

Amelia Island State Park
On The Southend, Amelia Island State Park 10-23-2016
On The Southend, Amelia Island State Park 10-23-2016

Covering the southern tip of this barrier island, Amelia Island State Park has reopened as well. Sadly, the shoreline along the Nassau Sound suffered notable erosion along the pine tree line, and turning the tip, along the Atlantic coastline, as well. But the fishermen were back, casting lines off the shore on Sunday morning, October 23, 2016, a beautiful fall day. And folks were also out walking and biking along Amelia Island State Park’s beachfront.

Cleanup Underway

Lots of trees and branches came down during Matthew. Upon return, the sound of chain saws could be heard, the scent of fresh cut wood in the air. Curbside piles in neighborhoods throughout Nassau County have been getting picked up, a removal process that continues at this writing.

In the aftermath of Matthew, debris has been floating around the ocean off Florida’s Atlantic coast. Lots of marsh grass has been washing up, along with tree trunks and remnants of docks and piers. According to local Nassau Emergency Management, “debris removal is being conducted up and down the Florida coast and it will take time. Please be patient.” Note that the Nassau County Board of Commissioners has issued a temporary beach driving ban through “at least October 25, 2016” while debris is being removed from the shoreline.

While official government, insurance and FEMA damage assessments and figures for Matthew are a long way from being finalized, early on it appears Nassau County, Florida, its residents and business community, may have fared far better than the two neighboring Florida coastal counties just south (Duval and St. Johns).

Amelia Island and its city of Fernandina Beach were very fortunate.  It was looking quite grim as the hurricane approached, but thankfully ended well for islanders. This hurricane of October 2016 will be remembered for a long time around here at the Florida-Georgia border.

— Read related article: “The October Hurricane Not Soon To Be Forgotten.”

By The Editor

Amelia Island Living's "PERSPECTIVE" column features observations of island life, news & opinion.