FORT MYERS BEACH, Florida. – The story of rebuilding Fort Myers Beach after the tremendous lives and property lost by Hurricane Ian last year is a story of resilience. Now, 246 days later, the city is facing a new hurricane season while still cleaning up from the previous one.
FOX Weather spent the first day of the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season Thursday with survivors of the ferocious storm recounting stories of community strength and restoration, as well as harsh lessons learned from the storm that changed the southwestern coast of Florida and its people. forever.
Most of the buildings on the island were destroyed.
The Category 4 hurricane struck southwestern Florida on September 28 with 150 mph winds. The barrier island lined with resorts, restaurants and homes was just “a three-quarter-mile-wide pothole” for the storm, according to Florida’s Director of Emergency Management. About 97% of its structures were damaged or destroyed.
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Ian caused $110 billion in damage, making it the costliest hurricane in Florida history and the third costliest in the US after Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey. Damage from the storm ranked as the second largest insurance loss in world history behind Katrina, according to a new analysis.
Ian washed away The Beach Bar from the shore with a 15 foot storm surge. The owners and managers went to work quickly after the storm, pulling a trailer and tents to show residents the bar was going nowhere. The temporary excavations are still in use eight months later, giving the community a sense of normalcy so they can enjoy a drink on the beach with loud music, general manager Matt Faller told FOX Weather.
“So we’re doing what we can with what we have,” Faller said. “We actually dumped this trailer and laptop on the site here around January 3. So we’re proud to say we only lost 97 days of business after losing our entire building.”
Rebuilding battles with new codes, for sure.
The Salty Crab Bar and Grill, a short walk away, was not so lucky. Two thirds of the building was leveled. Julia Cassino, director of marketing, watched a live feed of water creeping up to 5 feet deep in the restaurant before the salty water triggered security cameras. The restaurant is still closed.
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“The biggest challenge for us is because we are essentially rebuilding from the ground up, there are new guidelines and obviously one that the city has come up with has been that parking spaces are a requirement for any new building for us,” he said. Casino. “So that’s been the real challenge for us: finding parking in a space that we essentially don’t have the ability to do.”
Others worry that the new regulations will change the character of the beach community.
“I think we’re having a difficult time creating the original old Florida that we all love, its character,” said Joe Orlandini, resident and contractor. “Today’s requirements for a building are definitely more stringent, and that will be reflected in the reconstructed buildings. That will definitely remove some of that character.”
Others find it difficult to rebuild emotionally.
“I have a property here, but it’s not really my home anymore,” owner Paul Edwards told FOX Weather’s Robert Ray.
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Fort Myers Beach Mayor Dan Allers said the community has come a long way, but still has a ways to go. Many businesses are still closed, and many will never reopen.
“It’s really hard to put a schedule,” Allers said. “I mean, now we’re a fully functional island. We have people who enjoy the beach. People go to restaurants and have fun. It’s hard to say exactly when that will be, whether it’s three years, four years, five years. It will depend a lot. of obviously allowing. Getting people who want and need to come home is our number one priority.”
However, residents are still fighting with insurance companies. FOX Weather previously reported on a family who had to swim from the second story of their home with their 3-month-old baby. They have had to move twice as their damaged home sits vacant as litigation continues its protracted course.
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“Every time we go back to that house, I get really anxious and I don’t like to think about it,” said Callie Brown, whose baby will be a year old next month. “So for me moving forward is right now not thinking about it and hoping that it will be easier once it’s resolved when we never have to look back.”
A frustrated Katherine Butler lives in a trailer while she waits for a deal to repair her home.
“I’ve paid three insurances over 27 years, and only one of the three has paid,” Butler said. “The one that paid, I sent to my mortgage company because they told me they would apply it to my loan. But unfortunately, they are holding it hostage in an escrow account, and since I still have a mortgage balance, I have refused to apply that money to my mortgage. So, I have this hefty monthly mortgage payment on a house that I no longer have.”
hard lessons learned
Ian was the deadliest storm to hit the Sunshine State in 80 years. Killed 150 throughout the Southeast.
The tragic loss of life forced the county and state to investigate what went wrong, and a common theme emerged: the messages. The message could and should have been stronger, according to officials.
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Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said Floridians, meteorologists, emergency managers and the media focus too much on the cone of uncertainty instead of watches and warnings.
“The only thing we’re really going to make a conscious effort to do next year is make sure that we communicate all the watches and warnings,” Guthrie said. “We had significant storm surge watches and warnings three days before the hurricane last year. A lot of those watches and warnings went unheeded, and people didn’t leave.”
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“It’s important to get the information out to the people; you can’t be complacent, and every storm is different,” Allers said. “And how they react or how you react shouldn’t be any different. You should react to every storm in the same way.”
He was one of many who did not evacuate. The floods chased him to the second floor. Close friends who also took shelter at home did not survive as water toppled their stilt house.
County officials said they are adding communications offices to get the word out, as well as revamping emergency processes and emergency communications processes.
“Prepare and plan, so you don’t have to panic. Understand that the most predictable thing about the hurricane is that it is unpredictable,” Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson said. “So if we’re in the cone, if we’re being threatened, react like we’re going to take a big hit and know that you can, you can hide from the wind. You have to run from the water.”
The Red Cross continues to help the community through its long-term recovery. The group awards grants and funds to organizations and neighborhoods, according to Jill Palmer of the Red Cross.
FEMA has already awarded $5 billion in federal grants, disaster loans and flood insurance payments to the state and its survivors.