Jacksonville Business Owners Are Still Feeling The Effects Of Hurricane Irma A Year Later

Sep 12, 2018

A year ago this week Hurricane Irma caused record flooding in many parts of Jacksonville, and some business owners are still dealing with the storm’s effects.

Jacksonville’s San Marco neighborhood was one of the areas hit hardest when the storm blew past last September.

European Street Cafe has been a Jacksonville staple for decades, and the restaurant’s San Marco location is just a block away from the St. Johns River, which ended up flowing down San Marco Boulevard when storm surges hit the River City.

The building was flooded with about two feet of water, which came in through the door openings and over the window sills. The power stayed on so a good amount of food was salvageable, but the building was another story.

Owner Andy Zarka said the building’s structure was solid, but all the windows had to be replaced along with everything that was four feet and below.

“So we basically took the place back to its studs and started over,” Zarka said.

European Street San Marco was closed for six months as the building was revamped. Zarka said that flood insurance paid for the bulk of reconstruction and he had a rainy day fund that he dipped into to get things up and running again.

Zarka said that since the restaurant reopened in February, business has actually improved.

“Our sales are up for the past six months as compared to the year before the storm,” he said. “So, all-in-all while it wasn’t anything fun to go through, and I hope I don’t ever have to do it again, I think we’ve come out better than a lot of people have.”

Beth Handline, who owns Dance Trance, told a very different story.

Handline said flooding during Irma caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage and destroyed her San Marco dance studio.

“We put like all of our life savings into this place, and it was basically gone,” she said.

After the storm, the studio held a successful fundraiser which raised about $13,000. But, according to Handline, the dance floor alone was worth $20,000. “So we couldn’t even begin to build it back,” she said.

Handline said they needed at least $100,000 to fully repair the original space, and she didn’t want to stay in San Marco without flood insurance, which is expensive. She said most of the business owners she knows in San Marco can’t even afford it, and it’s not generally included in a lease contract.

Handline was on the verge of abandoning the idea of reopening Dance Trance in Jacksonville. She does own another location by the beach that was basically untouched by Irma, but the San Marco location served as the headquarters for what is a nationally recognized brand that sells products on a global scale.

Chris Thomas, who owns the Monarch Ballroom and leads the Chris Thomas Band, called Handline about a week after Irma. He offered his space for Handline to use, but she thought it was too far from San Marco for her students. So he recommended Anytime Fitness downtown.

She and owner Billy Frick came to an agreement and Dance Trance moved into the downtown fitness center in mid-October and officially reopened on November 1.

And, according to Handline, the best part about the move is they’re on the second floor, so she doesn’t have to worry about flooding as much.

Handline says most of her San Marco students did move to the new downtown location, but they don’t come as often because it’s a bit more of a trip. They do have a lot of new students, and Handline says they’re at about the same level of students as they were in San Marco, but Dance Trance is still in repair mode and the company’s recovery from Hurricane Irma isn’t over.

Cindy Platt is the owner of Grease Rags Clothing Company, and she’s in the process of moving her business out of San Marco after it flooded during Hurricane Irma.

“We are going to Springfield, because it is a little higher and drier,” Platt said jokingly.

She just signed her new lease on Wednesday, September 12.

Grease Rags’ San Marco location was just across the street from European Street, so it suffered a similar amount of damage. Platt initially considered herself lucky because only two dresses were damaged in the flood. The rest of the merchandise was untouched.

Her landlord handled all the building repairs while Platt refurbished or replaced all of the furniture. It only took Platt two months to get the business back up and running, and for about a month things were going really well because people were excited that the store had reopened.

But Platt said her experience with Hurricane Irma has been like having cancer, which she’s been diagnosed with twice.

“It’s not the initial problem that causes the biggest issues,” she said. “It’s after the fact. So, you know, the damage from the chemo drugs and stuff like that, the damage from the hurricane, to me it’s parallel. Because you just can’t really anticipate what the long term effects are going to be.”

And since Irma, Platt says foot traffic has been “non-existent” for her business.

“With Square, which is the system we use to ring up merchandise, at the end of every month they show you what percentage of your customers are returning and what percentage are new and I was 50/50 almost across the board the first two years we were here,” Platt said. “Now I’m down to 15 percent new customers. So that’s a huge impact. And our sales are down on average, we’re doing, I think the last time I looked, about 35 percent of what we were doing the first two years we were here. And I was pretty consistent.”

Platt said those numbers have been pretty steady since the Hurricane.

Despite everything she and her business has been through, Platt manages to remain optimistic. She said the rent at her new Springfield location is significantly lower than what she was paying in San Marco, and she’ll have a large space where she plans to host community events - something she’s very excited about. And to top it off, she says her “tried and true customers” will follow her wherever she goes.

She’s still got about a month’s worth of work to do before Grease Rags is ready to reopen, but she expects things to go well when that day comes.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.