ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – St. Johns County officials and residents want to send a message to visitors that despite damage from Hurricane Matthew, they are open for business.
"People are afraid to come down here," Pizzalley's Restaurant manager Jared Rice said. "We want them to come out. Ninety percent of the businesses are open, you know? Even if you guys aren't coming here, come down, hang out, spend your money, please. These businesses need it."
Gov. Rick Scott joined the charge Monday to bolster tourism in the Nation's Oldest City.
He visited the Castillo De San Marcos and addressed the media. The fort was closed for several days after the storm but reopened Wednesday.
"We have people hurting, but we are open for business," Scott said.
St. Johns County was one of the hardest-hit areas from Hurricane Matthew, suffering billions of dollars in damage, but Scott announced that 250 tourism businesses are back up and running after the storm, and they want visitors to take advantage.
St. Augustine's monuments, tours and businesses typically attract millions of visitors each year.
Turning things around after Hurricane Matthew is Scott's ultimate goal, and he's encouraging citizens to visit the area's beaches and businesses to take the recovery effort to the next level.
One monument that still remains closed until further notice is the Fort Matanzas National Monument.
Several restaurants along the area's popular Avenida Menendez were also forced to close due to damage.
Residential and commercial properties took a hard hit, too. Real estate data from CoreLogic estimated that insured losses could be between $4 billion and $6 billion and are still growing.
Some residents and businesses still have a long road ahead of them. Plywood and sandbags are still line the streets downtown.
For the folks at Tradewinds Tropical Lounge, rebuilding has been an around-the-clock process.
"We had a lot of water damage,” owner Janet Leonard said. “Around 2 feet of water came through the whole building. It pretty much messed up all the flooring, the stage, the dance floor and the couches."
With business, income and jobs put on hold, Leonard admitted it's been a struggle.
"All my band members have been out of work for two weeks,” Leonard said. “A lot of people live check to check, and they're suffering now."
As her business presses on and moves forward, Leonard said she looks forward to the day she can welcome tourists back. But above all, she can't overlook the support of the locals.
"The community has been by, checking us out, seeing if we're ready to go,” Leonard said. “Everybody is ready to come back in. They call every day to see if we're going to be back open."
Tradewinds is expected to re-open Thursday or Friday this week.
After Scott's visit, the bayfront of downtown St. Augustine was still more quiet than normal Monday evening.
"It's terrible. We come here every year during Christmas. And, actually, we were going to make reservations at Casablanca this year, so I wanted to stop and check it out and see how bad it was and it looks like it's totaled," said Bob Patron, who was visiting the area Monday.
But Patron and other visitors are certain the city will bounce back.
"Give them a little time and they will be back," Patron said.
Scott said it's up to President Barack Obama to help deliver federal aid as Floridians work to rebuild after the storm.
"The federal government needs to do their part," Scott said. "The president has the authority by himself to declare this a disaster area so we can get the individual assistance. For whatever reason, that has not happened."
Parking fees remain suspended another week
The city of St. Augustine will continue its suspension of fees charged for parking at all metered areas in the city, including on-street spaces and parking lots, for another week. Regular enforcement will resume at 7 a.m. on Monday, October 24.
Parking fees will resume Tuesday at the Historic Downtown Parking Facility, located adjacent to the St. Augustine Visitor Information Center. The cost is $12 per vehicle per entry.
The city hopes this suspension of parking fees will encourage visitors and residents to support the many businesses throughout the city during this recovery period.
The suspension of fees applies only to areas where vehicles may park legally, and does not include loading and delivery zones, taxicab stands, residential parking or privately controlled lots.
Property damage reporting for residents
St. Johns County residents and business owners who suffered property damage during Hurricane Matthew are encouraged to call their insurance providers directly with storm-related inquiries.
Property owners can also report damages to the St. Johns County Property Appraiser’s Office at www.sjcpa.us.
Damages do not need to be reported to St. Johns County Emergency Management.
For more information, please call the St. Johns County Emergency Management Citizen Information Line at 904-824-5550.
St. Johns County beach debris cleanup
St. Johns County has begun cleanup on the county’s 42 miles of coastline in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.
Debris removal crews began on Vilano Beach and will move north along the coast to Ponte Vedra Beach.
Crews will then begin cleaning the south beaches at Summer Haven and proceed north to St. Augustine Beach until all beaches have been cleaned.
The county is calling in additional resources to help speed the beach debris cleanup process.