Hurricane left lives, neighborhoods forever changed

Residents dealing with Matthew's mess more than 7 months after storm

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Hurricane Matthew hit Northeast Florida hard seven months ago, and for some, the damage still remains. Matthew's size and intensity as it formed and made its approach, put The Weather Authority on alert.

"We were writing about this storm hitting somewhere almost two weeks before it did because the ingredients for a powerful Caribbean storm was already baked in the cake," said The Weather Authority Chief Meteorologist John Gaughan.

As the days stretched on, Matthew only became more frightening because of the track it was projected to take -- one long swipe up Florida's heavily populated east coast.

It hit Haiti, causing hundreds of deaths, with Matthew's intensity growing into Category 4 storm with winds topping at 156 mph.

Gaughan knew the devastating effects a storm of that magnitude could have on the people in its path.

"In terms of preparing my own family, I tell them for a Category 1 or 2, expect to leave. Category 3, expect to leave for a couple weeks. Category 4 or more, we're going to move you to grandma's house in North Carolina because you're going to have to relocate for months while we rebuild," Gaughan explained.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry also knew Matthew could be catastrophic for the city.

"Cat 4 or 5 devastates communities. Schools are closed. Friends are lost. It's never the same," he said, reflecting on Matthew. "How do you pray about a very dangerous storm that's coming at you, because you certainly don't want your city impacted but you also don't want any other city impacted? So I just said a simple prayer that that thing would wobble and it would have as little impact as possible."

When Matthew hit on Oct. 7, a 30-mile wobble to the east the day before largely spared the area. But Flagler and St. Johns counties were hit especially hard. 

WATCH: WJXT Films documentary 'A Disaster Named Matthew'

Sharon Koeman, who lives in the Davis Shores neighborhood of St. Augustine, lost everything inside her home.

"We all went to our houses and everybody kind of came out. We all just looked at each other and we all went, 'We don't know what to do.' The destruction in the house, the smell, the mud," Koeman recalled.

Giselle Thompson also lives in Davis Shores and is still dealing with the pain of Matthew seven months later. She evacuated before the storm and returned to a horrible mess.

"I didn't think it was that bad until I started looking around and I saw everything was damp, wet. My furniture was wet. Furniture looked fine, but it had gotten wet with salt water," explained Thompson. "The tide or marsh just came in front. The marsh, I guess, it was blown in and the tide just rose into the house and came in with the high tide and went out with low tide."

Thompson has had to replace almost everything in her house. She even considered knocking it down and raising its elevation in case the Intracoastal Waterway -- which sits in her backyard -- gets flooded that high again. She says Matthew has turned her community into a ghost town.

"I've been living here, and there's no one living around me yet. They've all vacated, fixed up the house, or sold their house," she explained. "It's been devastating."

Thompson's not the only one in her family to feel Matthew's pain. About a mile and half away, her brother's and her mother's home were also flooded.

"Ahead of the storm, I put everything on top of tables, put things upstairs, I sandbagged around the opening of the house, barricaded the front door because I figured the surge would come in that way," Paul Thompson said.

Those whose homes and businesses were ravaged say they'll never forget the storm that was terrible, but could have been worse.

"I will say that we got very lucky that we didn't have the impact that we could have had. But, hopefully, will folks will take from this Matthew and deep in the recesses of their tropical memory maybe the next time it happens," said The Weather Authority Meteorologist Richard Nunn.