ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Irma is now a tropical storm. Its forceful winds and intense rain are passing through Georgia on the way to Alabama. In Florida, hurricane Irma's enormous size had threatened nearly the entire state. There's a lot of relief today that things did not turn out to be as bad as feared. Still, thousands of people are in shelters, and millions are without power.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The U.S. Navy is helping with recovery in the hard-hit Florida Keys. And in Jacksonville, there is record flooding that's expected to get worse. We are joined now by Ryan Benk of member station WJCT. He is in that city's emergency operations center. Hey there, Ryan.
RYAN BENK, BYLINE: Hey. How are you?
MCEVERS: Good. As we just heard Ari say, we've been hearing that other parts of Florida haven't been too hard hit, that people are relieved. Why is the situation still so bad in Jacksonville?
BENK: Well, it was really a confluence of issues. So just hours before the hurricane was expected to make landfall here, we were battered by another storm moving south from the northeast. So that's what they call the nor'easter. It dumped heavy rain and whipped wind and ocean water into the northern mouth of the Florida St. Johns River which cuts through Jacksonville's center. That pushed water into the river's southern end, which is where it sat until Irma flung all of that extra water northward and back in the direction of the city's urban core.
A meteorologist said it was similar to a syringe effect with the wind acting as a plunger. The St. Johns is one of the state's largest and - rivers. And the way the city is constructed around it, you need to cross a lot of bridges to get almost anywhere. So those access points close once the sustained winds reach 40 miles per hour.
The National Weather Service says though the nor'easter alone wouldn't close the bridges, its gusts reached right up around that closure threshold. So between both storms, all of the bridges were closed pretty rapidly throughout Sunday night. That left a lot of people who didn't evacuate from coastal and other low-lying areas stuck.
MCEVERS: So how are people dealing with the flooding then?
BENK: Well, a lot of it was surprise. Some people woke up stranded. They went to bed dry only to wake up in the early morning hours with water breaching their homes. Here's what our mayor, Lenny Curry's, message was to stranded residents earlier today.
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LENNY CURRY: Please put what represents a white flag somewhere on your house that can be viewed visibly from outside. We have search and rescue teams ready to deploy.
BENK: So Curry says the city's emergency hotline received around 600 calls from people needing rescue in just the first eight hours of the post-storm recovery, including our own news director who was home, in charge of digital updates while I was at the EOC and other colleagues were manning wall-to-wall coverage at the station.
The National Weather Service says this is the worst flooding downtown and the other parts of the urban core have experienced in the last century and a half. Storm surge from the St. Johns River is expected to reach up to 5 feet more than normal high tide. And the Weather Service's meteorologists say because of the tidal nature of the river, this could ebb and flow for the better part of a week.
MCEVERS: Wow. There was so much confusion around where exactly Irma was going to hit Florida. And you talk about people being - in Jacksonville being caught by surprise. Had people - had some people evacuated?
BENK: Well, sure there was many people that evacuated. Northbound and westbound expressways in northeast Florida were packed with people fleeing south Florida. And then of course Jacksonville residents were encouraged to leave as soon as possible to kind of try to beat that traffic.
Days before the storm was set to hit, some of these folks ended up going to the western edge of central Florida, to places like Tampa only to turn back around to Jacksonville when Irma shifted west. And of course it continued to shift again and again after that, eventually moving closer to northeast Florida. Other residents just moved outside the city's mandatory evacuation zones to ride out the storm.
MCEVERS: And there are reports that other cities nearby were hit. What do you know about that?
BENK: Well, just 45 minutes or so to our south is the historic city of St. Augustine, and they were hit pretty hard as well. The surrounding rivers there in that city breached the sea walls. There was water in the historic downtown, which is kind of the crown jewel of St. Augustine. That's where you find all of the tourist attractions, the hotels, the kind of colonial style bars...
BENK: ...And restaurants. And a lot of that was flooded.
MCEVERS: Ryan Benk of member station WJCT in Jacksonville, Fla., thank you very much.
BENK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.