FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) – Four years before Category 4 Ian wiped out parts of southwest Florida, the state of Panhandle had its own encounter with an even stronger hurricane, Michael. The Category 5 storm devastated virtually one city, breaking thousands of homes and businesses and causing some $25 billion in damage.
With damage from Ian estimated at various times and the Fort Myers area starting a cleanup that will be even greater than after Michael, the two areas work together to move forward as South Florida Residents curious to see what their area will look like in a few years.
Mayor Greg Brudnicki and other leaders of a rebuilt Panama City traveled to the southwest coast this week at the request of Governor Ron DeSantis to help officials plan a way forward. Keeping crews and trucks in the area to clear mounds of rubble is job No. 1 because all other progress depends on it, Brudnicki said, and that could mean getting loans as a bridge until federal repayments show up.
“You can’t fix anything until you’ve cleaned it up,” Brudnicki said.
Tiny Mexico Beach, which was nearly leveled by Michael in 2018, still has fewer structures and people than before the storm. The city’s mayor, Al Cathey, said one of the biggest challenges to recovering from a natural disaster is fundamental: looking forward, not back.
There was little left in town after Michael, Cathey said, and residents gathered daily at a portable kitchen to plot the way forward after the hurricane, and there was an unwritten rule.
“When we had our afternoon meetings at the food truck, all we were talking about was, ‘What are we going to do tomorrow?’ —not what wasn’t done four days ago,” Cathey said.
Michael was blamed for more than 30 deaths. With more than 100 dead, Ian was the third deadliest storm to hit the U.S. mainland this century Hurricane Katrinawhich killed about 1,400 people, and Hurricane Sandykilling 233 despite weakening to a tropical storm just before landfall.
Recovery will be more complicated in southwest Florida than in the Panhandle because of population, Cathey said. Bay County, which includes Panama City and Mexico Beach, has a population of just 180,000, while Lee County, where the Fort Myers area is located, is home to nearly 790,000 people, many of whom retirees.
Simply removing the boats that were thrown on land around Lee County could take months, and there are the remains of homes and businesses scattered by 250-mph winds or inundated by seawater that flowed for miles inland along creeks and canals.
One of the damaged ships and swampy homes belongs to Mike Ford, who is bracing for a lengthy recovery that could change the character of the area.
The flooded mobile home park where Ford lives — one of hundreds of such communities in the region — would be better off as a RV park where people can come and go than as a permanent neighborhood, he said. Residents might be ripe for a buyout or conversion after Ian, especially as he and others had to repair damage after Hurricane Irma in 2017.
“I have enough money to rebuild, but I can’t see it because what I’ve (already) done is rebuild, and now this has happened,” said Ford, who lost a valuable collection of guitars and Beatles records to Ian. . “It kind of takes the wind out of you.”
A neighbor of Ford, Chuck Wagner, said some people are already getting frustrated after Ian. Many Southwest Florida residents are retirees who live in the area only half the year, spend the hot summers up north, and they hear that help may not be available to part-time residents.
“Everything is in the air,” he said. “It can take years. Who knows?”
In Mexico Beach, Tom Wood, 82, is proof that progress will happen — slow and painful.
His beachfront business, the Driftwood Inn, was blown up and filled with ocean water when Michael made landfall on October 10, 2018 with sustained winds of 150 mph. Initially, he said the only logical step seemed to be giving up.
But the storm passed and the Gulf was still beckoning, Wood said, so he decided to rebuild. The new Driftwood Inn reopened in June with 24 rooms in its original location after spending $13 million and many headaches from insurance, government regulations, and contractors.
Mexico Beach still desperately needs a supermarket to avoid the 10-mile drive to the nearest one, he said, and a pharmacy and more restaurants would be good. But looking back, Wood said, he believes he made the right decision to rebuild and hopes people in Fort Myers Beach do the same.
“I’m so glad we did it, not just for us, but for the city,” he said. “It just makes the city better, I think.”
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