CRESCENT BEACH, Fla. - Three tornadoes touched down in St. Johns County during Hurricane Irma, county officials confirmed Wednesday morning after an assessment by the National Weather Service Jacksonville.
An EF-1 made contact near Vilano Beach, east of the Northeast Florida Regional Airport, an EF-1 affected Huguenot Cemetery in St. Augustine, and an EF-2 impacted Crescent Beach, ripping roofs and sides off about a dozen condominiums at five buildings in the Summerhouse Beach and Racquet Club off A1A.
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"You see damage in one direction and in another, so that does suggest a tornado that probably came through. (It) probably came in off the ocean," NWS meteorologist Pete Wolf said. "Likely winds 90, 100 mph, maybe more than that."
A 2x12 beam was impaled into the ground due to the tornado at the condos and has not been able to be removed from the ground, St. Johns County firefighters said.
"(It was) sheer terror," property manager and tenant Jon Davis said. "The wind was unbelievable. That's not anything you want to hear in the middle of the night. It just seemed to go on forever."
Residents who had evacuated returned to the complex Tuesday to find their homes destroyed. The roof was ripped off one building and several walls were blown away, allowing a peak straight into the bedroom and making the building resemble a dollhouse.
"Sometimes, you got to look at it and be thankful you're still standing," Allen Girard said. "This is gone, but we can build again -- someday, somewhere, but not here."
Girard said he evacuated and kept an eye on what was going on during the storm.
"Only way you could tell what was going on was checking the news, and I get (Channel) 4 programming on my iPad" Girard said. "I am thankful to you guys."
News4Jax chief meteorologist John Gaughan was tracking the local effects of Irma when he noticed a signature of a tornado on radar that indicated rotation and mentioned it on the air at 1:05 a.m.
"Right out here, just to the east of I-95, shows a couplet right here," Gaughan said, pointing at the radar. "We're seeing high winds. It updated again. It's hard to determined exactly what the wind speeds are, but (at least) 60 mph."
Residents said they expect it will take at least a year to get things back to normal.
"It's one of those things you see only on TV and you hope it never happens to you, and then when you see it, it's unbelievable. The pictures can't tell it. You have to be here to see it," Davis said.
Despite the devastation, some residents remained optimistic.
“We wanted to remodel, so that was our chance to remodel,” said Stephanie Pulido, whose family condo was destroyed.
Joking aside, Pulido was saddened to see the place where she learned to walk and swim virtually unrecognizable.
“It doesn't even look the same,” she said. “Just seeing it the way it is now, doesn't look the same. It doesn't feel the same. It's heartbreaking to see it like this.”
The area was hit hard by Hurricane Matthew last year as well.
But Pulido said she’s going to be OK. She has a lot of family support and like the other residents of the condo complex, she'll rebuild piece by piece.
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