The morning after the storm, the sun was shining and the water had receded from Memorial Park.

 

John Ray, 67, came to the Riverside park to walk his three cocker spaniels. He and other regulars greeted each other, asking how they had fared during the storm. They stood near the park’s bronze statue, looking at the pieces of the balustrade that until the previous day stood alongside the St. Johns River.

The small columns that had neatly lined the river now were strewn about, like chess pawns tossed off a giant board.

“It looks like ancient ruins,” Ray said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

There were all kinds of surreal images of what the tail end of Hurricane Irma did before the storm finally, mercifully, exited Florida. Familiar streets that looked like rivers. Tall buildings surrounded by water. People being rescued from neighborhoods in small boats.

If I had to pick a symbolic image for Irma and Jacksonville, I’d go with two shots taken by the Times-Union’s Bruce Lipsky at Memorial Park. One was of a battered Florida flag, a hole in the middle where the state seal used to be. The other was of the popular piece of urban greenspace looking like more like the ocean, waves crashing around the iconic sculpture titled “Life.”

“I went out there, saw that and just assumed the wall was underwater,” said Michele Luthin of the Memorial Park Association.


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It wasn’t until Tuesday morning, when she saw photos on social media, that she realized the wall was no longer standing.

“I couldn’t tell from the pictures how bad it was,” she said. “When I went out there, I got tears in my eyes.”

She was hardly alone.

Jeanette Yacoub lives in a high-rise next to the park and is one of the volunteers who spends many hours a week cleaning it. She was at the park Tuesday morning, surveying the damage, talking to other regulars and, along with John Ray, trying to describe the connection to this place.

“It’s like a person,” she said.

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“This is part of my soul,” he said, pointing at a nearby bench and recalling a photo taken there decades ago. “It’s my safe place.”

As people gathered in the park — with a helicopter flying high overhead and a drone zipping around the statue — they often had similar emotional responses to the damage. It isn’t their personal property, their home, their fence. Yet there clearly is a personal attachment.

It is one of Jacksonville’s oldest parks, a place full of memories and history, starting with its creation after World War I to honor the 1,200 Floridians who died in the war.

Now the history includes one of the most devastating storms this state has ever seen.

The park recently underwent a major restoration, with drainage and irrigation upgrades for a new center oval lawn — the greenspace that ended up as a brackish lake Monday.

It remains to be seen what all that water did to the grass. But Luthin tried to find a silver lining in the storm, noting that the next phase of renovations includes replacing the fence around the park.

“Irma took down the fence for us,” she said.

Yes, they already are making plans to put back up the balustrade.

She posted a message on Facebook, asking people not to disturb the pieces strewn around the statue and walkway.

“People might not realize they can be reused,” she said. “So we want to make sure they don’t take pieces as souvenirs. We do plan to use them to rebuild everything.”

For many of us, the power still was out Tuesday. But we saw images of what others went through all over Florida — and what they face in the coming days — and felt a mix of good fortune and guilt.

There will be all kinds of images that tell a story of the calm after the storm, the resolve to rebuild. Some of them undoubtedly will come from a Jacksonville park that ended up underwater, a battered Florida flag flying overhead and a statue standing in the water that’s called “Life.”

mark.woods@jacksonville.com

(904) 359-4212