In St. Augustine, Florida, rising seas and more frequent storms threaten the very character of the city—its centuries-old history. Photo by John Bazemore/AP Photo

FL - The Sea Versus St. Augustine

Rising waters put many historic coastal cities at risk of losing their cultural pasts: can they be saved?

The sky was jarringly blue on a Saturday in October 2016 when Jenny Wolfe drove her car across a bridge into St. Augustine, Florida, to see what remained of her city after Hurricane Matthew.

A small burg of just over 14,000 inhabitants, St. Augustine was founded in 1565 by sailors who claimed Florida for Spain, and it is now the oldest continuously occupied European-settled city in the United States. Wolfe works as its historic preservation officer, and she could read each of the city’s architectural details like chapters in an epic—from early Spanish colonial buildings to the split-level ranch houses built during a 1980s real estate boom. A star-shaped, 17th-century stone fortress called the Castillo de San Marcos—built from coquina, a stone formed by the geological compression of piles of tiny clamshells—is the city’s most iconic structure. The streets are lined with regal 19th-century Spanish Renaissance–style hotels and museums, old drive-in motels with neon signs and turquoise swimming pools, and flashy tourist attractions such as a wax museum, a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium, and a pirate museum.

In video footage from the storm, the entire place looked like an underwater ruin, palms flopping limply like grass in wind, streets full of turbulent rivers. Wolfe hadn’t witnessed it firsthand. She’d obeyed evacuation orders and headed inland. There, she anxiously watched her city on news reports and Facebook videos, which showed rampaging floodwaters so high they would have risen, in some places, above her head.