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Irma hits Jacksonville, Fla., with its worst flood in a century

Eloise Williams fell asleep Sunday night with the Bible on her chest, thanking the Lord that her house had survived the punishing assault of Hurricane Irma as it passed through.

But then the 63-year-old awoke Monday morning to the floodwater that followed the storm.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my 30 years in Jacksonville,” said Williams, who lives in a small bungalow in the quaint riverside neighborhood of San Marco. Even if she had lived in Jacksonville 100 years, she may have never seen anything like it. The northeastern Florida city ultimately was one of the hardest hit on the mainland by the storm, which flooded its downtown and several of its neighborhoods.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry declared it the worst flood the city has experienced in a century, as he urged residents who needed a rescue to waive a flag in front of their home.

The water came barreling down the city’s streets and kept rising, to the point where it was at shoulder height in some places. By Tuesday, the city was filled with insurance adjusters, sump pumps and tears. Some streets still were underwater. Floodwater poured out of car doors when they were opened. Locals tried to cope by sharing with one another Facebook videos they posted of swimming on their streets during the storm.

The deluge seemed to take everyone by surprise. Flooding is normal in Jacksonville — but not like this. Harley Pickard, 29, who lives on the ground floor of a fourplex on the St. Johns River, had stayed up until 4 a.m. Monday to watch for any trouble the tide might bring in. All seemed fine.

A few hours later, he awoke to find the room filled with water and his dog floating by on his doggie bed. “People did not realize how fast this would happen,” the U.S. Marine Corps veteran said.

By 10 a.m., the water was up to his waist in the apartment. At that point, Pickard had grabbed a small kayak and his surfboard, which already was starting to float down the street, and began ferrying his friends, neighbors and local pets to safety.

Pickard, who lost most everything he has, other than his wallet and an heirloom watch, put evacuees in the compact kayak and their pets stood on the surfboard tied to it. He waded through the rising stormwater, guiding them out of it. Then he and his friends went back and looked for others who needed help.

“We woke up, and all of a sudden, we were part of the river,” said Joshua Young, 32, who lives in the same building and took part in the kayak rescue.

Down the street, a sobbing woman carefully placed dozens of soaked family photos on the hood of her car and on sheets laid out in front of her home, hoping they could be salvaged. Much of the floodwater had receded, but the high-water line was clearly visible on cars and garage doors throughout the neighborhood, rising nearly waist high. Neighbors shared iPhone shots of their cars almost completely underwater.

“The worst we had ever seen before was up to this second step,” said Dan Harris, 59, as he stood at the entrance of his home, showing where he expected the water to stop. Instead, it snaked over that step and through the entire first floor of his home, where he runs a photography business.

The leather couch and antique dresser in the living room were on bricks. Harris kept putting more bricks underneath as the water flooded in, hoping to keep the furniture above it. He succeeded. But much of the rest of his ground floor was a wreck. Still, Harris said it could have been worse. His neighbor’s home sat a foot and a half lower than the elevation of his. “So it’s a foot and a half more water,” Harris said. “Her stuff had floated from the living room to the bedroom.”

Closer to the river, Carol Orr checked on his 82-year-old dad, Bernard. Bernard Orr was in a 12-story building for retired people, where the water had come right through the first floor. It wasn’t enough to get him to evacuate.

“He didn’t want to leave,” the 61-year-old son said. “The water rescue folks came by. They took out some folks who wanted to go. He stayed. So I came by to check on him. … They take pretty good care of them over there. They set up an area where folks can grill the food they have, or plug in Crock-Pots.”

The stilts that kept the water out of Serena Brown’s home for years couldn’t protect it from this surge. As she picked up the garbage bins and other trash that had floated over to her lawn, a generator wheezed from the back of one of her two soaked pickups. It was powering an air-conditioning unit.

“We have six dogs,” said Brown, 67. “I’m worried about them getting overheated.” She’s hoping the water came in and out quickly enough that her hardwood floors will dry out.

In the city’s main downtown business district, the garage of the towering Wells Fargo building could be mistaken for a swimming pool. A stench filled the air along the riverside promenade, which was caked with mud and other debris that had washed in. Crews tried to scrub the street, but getting up all that mud was not easy.

“It blew me away,” said Lisa Cattanach, 49. “The river came all of the way up into the city.”

She pulled out her phone to share the Facebook video of her friend Rene Llano kayaking back to the flooded house nearby where Llano lived. “I have lost everything,” Llano said in the video, which showed water flowing through her entire ground floor.

The floodwater didn’t discriminate by race or income level. It flowed into fancy neighborhoods and hardscrabble communities where residents already were struggling to afford to stay in their homes.

“It was horrific,” said Fred Childs, 61, who lives in one of the modest homes by the Trout River. “The water was coming in through pipes that usually go out to the river. Houses were inundated. Some of these streets are totally devastated.”

evan.halper@latimes.com

Follow me: @evanhalper

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