A year after pouring their hopes, aspirations, and savings into a four-bedroom, two-bath, cinder block house in Davis Shores, Scott and Noel Barnwell hung one final picture in their new nursery and declared their dream home renovation complete.
Two weeks later, Hurricane Matthew slammed into St. Augustine.
While Scott, a lieutenant with the St. Johns County Fire Department, worked round-the-clock alongside his fellow firefighters, Noel, who was 39 weeks pregnant with the couple’s first child, rode out the storm in a hotel off State Road 16. As soon as they were able to, the Barnwells returned home to assess the damage.
“It was eerie,” recalls Noel. “It looked pretty much like we left it – the power was even back on – except everything was wet and there was mud all over the floor.”
“At first, it was almost a relief to know what had happened and what we were up against,” says Scott. “We thought, ‘Okay, some flood damage, we can handle this.’”
Unfortunately, like many other residents in Davis Shores, Crescent Beach and other flooded neighborhoods in St. Augustine, the Barnwells quickly learned how destructive 18 inches of water could be. A high school friend of Scott’s who works in flood remediation explained that the sewage-tainted flood water contaminated everything it touched with dangerous bacteria.
So, for the second time in just over a year, the Barnwells gutted their dream home. While they were able to salvage a few things, like the butcher block counters made from the house’s original ceiling planks, most of the fixtures and pieces they had carefully curated had to go. Cabinetry, furniture, plaster, and insulation were tossed into the yard along with the bench Scott custom built for the dining room and the home’s refinished wood floors. “The first time I cried was seeing that pile of hardwood flooring in the yard,” says Scott. “That and when the first group of church volunteers showed up to help.”
Just like St. Augustine’s other hurricane victims, Scott and Noel were overwhelmed by the outpouring of support they received in the weeks after the storm – help that was especially needed when Noel went into labor two weeks after the storm.
“For a while after our son was born, we barely came by the house,” says Scott. “Between taking care of a newborn and dealing with the constant phone calls to the insurance company and the bank, it was just relentless.”
While the couple, who met at Flagler College and married in 2002, focused on their new baby boy, Sully, Scott’s colleagues of 13 years at the St. Johns County Fire Department stepped up to make sure the family of three could safely return to their home in record time.
Led by Scott’s battalion chief Alex Courter, who had previous experience in home renovations, a fresh vision for the Barnwells’ dream home was born. In addition to new, faux-wood tile floors, cabinets, appliances, and furniture, Courter decided to give the Barnwells a few extras that they hadn’t been able to afford in their initial remodel.
A fourth bedroom on the west end of the house was converted to a new master bath featuring a walk-in closet and an enormous garden tub with sunset views, providing Scott and Noel with a beautiful oasis next to their son’s nursery. The dated peach-and-maroon guest bath was also remodeled with vintage black-and-white ribbon tiles, while the former master bedroom and en-suite bath at the opposite end of the house became the Barnwells’ new guest room getaway.
Outside, the exterior of the bright blue beach cottage required a post-hurricane makeover as well. A new, larger deck – with special safety gates for Sully – replaced the original deck that floated off its foundation in the storm. The in-ground pool was also deep cleaned to remove the leftover sewage water.
With so much extra help, the Barnwells were back in their house six weeks after the storm – just in time to hang Sully’s first Christmas stocking over the couple’s gorgeous new wall-mounted electric fireplace.
“The support we received was unbelievable,” says Scott, who, on the day of my visit, is preparing for a two-day celebration honoring all the volunteers who brought the couple’s house back to life. “How do you even begin to express it? We just can’t thank everyone enough. I think about the people in Texas who are going through this now and I pray that they get the same kind of help we did.”
From the friend who let the Barnwells live rent free in her house to the friends whose connections got them furniture and building supplies at cost, to the friends (and strangers) who picked up and moved the debris pile in their front yard three times, the Barnwells know they were very fortunate to have so much help rebuilding their home for a second time.
Though the house was flooded once again this past September during Hurricane Irma, the Barnwells were a little more prepared. They were able to save most of their furniture and possessions from damage and, though it’ll be a while before the space is back to normal again, the home is worth fighting for a second time.
“We were always meant to be here,” says Noel, who recently had the house’s GPS coordinates, scripted inside the St. Augustine skyline, tattooed along on her right arm. “Life happens the way it’s supposed to happen.”
Photography by Leonard Blush