JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As Tropical Storm Erika continues to move toward the state, some living along the coast of Northeast Florida are already getting ready, even though the storm is still days away.
Erika is expected to approach the Jacksonville area as a Category 1 hurricane around Tuesday morning.
In South Ponte Vedra Beach, storms last year caused major erosion problems for some houses. Some were able to get permits to build new protective walls, but others have not.
Many homeowners in the area are keeping a close eye on Erika. Several houses in Vilano Beach have permanent bulkheads to prevent erosion problems, but others in the area do not.
Jack Meyer has watched the deck from his yard to the beach get swept away and much of his yard collapse from erosion. He said Erika has him watching the weather forecast closely.
"There's nothing we can do. Just sit and pray," Meyer said. "If it's a hurricane, we probably won't stay. If it's a tropical depression, it's off the coast in the Gulf Stream, we'll stay and keep an eye on that."
Meyer said he was able to get a permit recently to build a bulkhead, but there is a turtle nest on the beach, so he can't build yet. He said there were a lot of hoops to go through with U.S. Fish and Wildlife to acquire the permit. He hopes Erika stays well off the coast.
"If that washes away and the pilings are exposed, got a whole new set of forces on the piles then," Meyer said.
For the homes that have protective walls, the walls are very close to the structure of the house.
One house right next to several with walls is not eligible for a wall, because the erosion has to reach about 5 feet closer to the house, neighbors said.
Meyer said he and other homeowners without a protective wall will monitor Erika, but at this point, it's out of their control.
"My wife's nervous about it. My boy lives here. He's got a job in St. Augustine. He's nervous about it," Meyer said. "It's up to God."
Preparing for possible flooding, high winds
The threat of Erika also has Jacksonville Beach authorities on their toes, as the coast could take the brunt of the storm, particularly when it comes to flooding.
Almost every summer, Third Street, the main drag in Jacksonville Beach, floods. Sometimes it's so bad police have to shut down the streets and the water creeps into businesses and homes that line them.
"The water has to go somewhere, and so if you hit a high tide, the water just can't go anywhere," Jacksonville Beach Fire Department Chief Gary Frazier said. "Doesn't matter what you have in place to get it away, it is going to back up, and it's not going to be able to go anywhere, typically, until the tide starts receding. Then the water goes down."
Frazier said it doesn't even take a tropical storm or hurricane to flood the streets at the beaches, so if one hits, it won't be fun. That's why city crews are cleaning storm drains and gutters, preparing for whatever Erika might bring.
City Hall was also being boarded up Thursday. Frazier said officials were doing it early, instead of waiting until the weekend when the storm is closer.
Frazier said firefighters, police, public works and utility companies have plans in place, and residents should, too.
"The citizens need to do some preparations, not just the city," Frazier said. "The government can't take care of you in all disasters. You've got to do some self-responsibility. Get your own kit. Come and get your own plan developed. Have your own supplies at least for three or four days."
Frazier warned residents not to wait until the last minute. He said people who live at the beaches should be preparing now. That means getting a supply kit ready, talking with family about what to do, making sure there's fuel, food and water, just in case.
Jacksonville Fire Union president Randy Wyse said it's also important to remember that strong winds can pick up objects and turn them into projectiles, which can damage a home and even be deadly.
"If you start breaking windows, obviously you've got flying glass, and if you are staying inside, it can be a real hazard," Wyse said. "And of course, the next thing you could do is board up the windows. That's a real extreme measure. It is a lot of work, but it will save you if it does get bad enough where you will bust windows."
Wyse said it's a good idea to secure items like barbecue grills, basketball hoops, firewood and picnic tables inside a garage.
"Chairs are very light. Not even in a hurricane force wind can blow these away and cause damage. But the swing, especially close to the house like that, will beat up against it and cause unnecessary damage," Wyse said. "Just put down, put it inside."
Wyse said if a garage isn't available, it's a good idea to just bring the items inside a home. He said it's also important to be proactive about nearby trees.
"If you've got limbs, old trees, maybe dead trees, the time to call to have them cut down isn't the day the storm is going to hit," Wyse said.
Wyse said flooding and storm surge are his biggest concerns. He knows the danger from when he worked in Mississippi during Hurricane Katrina. If the forecast calls for those conditions, Wyse said the smartest thing to do is evacuate.
Wyse also recommended having a generator -- and the fuel to run it -- ready in case your home loses power. He said if you already have one, it's a good idea to crank it up now to make sure it still works.
Wyse said never run a generator inside a house or garage. It gives off fumes that could be deadly.
Is Jax Beach pier ready for major storm?
If Erika does reach Northeast Florida, many will be watching how the Jacksonville Beach pier handles the storm.
The pier was demolished by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Its pilings and decking were knocked down, and the pier wasn't rebuilt until 2004.
The new pier hasn't endured a hurricane yet, but the pier manager said it's been tested by some severe storms.
"We've had some really nice nor'easters that have caused me a headache, especially on the T-section," Manager Vera Bryant said. "It's not the wind that causes the problem. It's the water. It pushes up from the bottom, and that's why we use the pop-ups now."
The "pop-ups" are deck boards that give way when hit by heavy surf, so the rest of the pier can remain standing. Bryant said the pier was just inspected by the fire department and was deemed safe, but she has other concerns.
The wear and tear is evident on the pier, with several parts of the decking that sag.
Several boards have been replaced and are sticking up, which creates a safety hazard.
City Councilman Bill Gulliford said the council is considering spending $800,000 to replace the pier's decking.
"I am not worried about the safety of it. I am worried about the use of it and allowing people the real opportunity to use it," Gulliford said. "I would like to see other enhancements other than maintenance. (Adding) shaded areas. It would be nice if we had more vending on it."
Officials at other local piers said they will keep an eye on Erika as the storm approaches and will close their piers if they think conditions are unsafe.