FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Four years before Category 4 Ian wiped out parts of Southwest Florida, the state’s Panhandle had its own encounter with an even stronger hurricane, Michael. The Category 5 storm nearly destroyed a city, destroyed thousands of homes and businesses and caused an estimated $25 billion in damage.
With damage assessed by Ian on several occasions, and the Fort Myers area beginning to clean up even more than after Michael, the two areas are collaborating on a way forward as South Florida residents wonder what their area will look like in a few years.
Mayor Greg Brudnicki and other leaders from the rebuilt Panama City traveled to the Southwest Coast this week at the request of Gov. Ron DeSantis to help officials plan a way forward. Keeping crews and trucks in the area to clear the mountain of debris is job No. 1 because all other progress depends on it, Brudnicki said, and that could mean getting a bridge loan until federal money comes along.
“You can’t fix anything until you clean it,” Brudnicki said.
Little Mexico Beach, which was nearly leveled by Michael in 2018, still has fewer structures and people than before the storm. Mayor Al Cathey said one of the biggest challenges of natural disaster recovery is fundamental: looking forward, not backward.
With little left in the city after Michael, Cathey says, residents gathered daily in a portable kitchen to chart a path forward after the hurricane, and there was an unwritten rule.
“When we had our afternoon meetings at the food truck, all we talked about was, ‘What are we going to do tomorrow?’ — not what wasn’t done four days ago,” Cathey said.
Michael has been blamed for more than 30 deaths. With more than 100 dead, Ian was the third-deadliest storm to hit the US mainland this century, behind Hurricane Katrina, which killed about 1,400 people, and Hurricane Sandy, which killed 233 despite weakening to a tropical storm shortly before landfall. land.
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 are retirees.
Simply removing the boats washed ashore around Lee County could take months, with the remains of homes and businesses scattered by 150 mph winds or flooded seawater that rushed miles inland along creeks and canals.
One of the damaged vessels and flooded houses belongs to Mike Ford, who is ready for an extended 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 as a trailer park where people can come and go than as a permanent settlement, he said. Residents may be ripe for a buyout or conversion after Ian, especially since he and others had to repair damage after 2017’s Hurricane Irma.
“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 his valuable collection of Beatles guitars and records to Ian. “It kind of takes the wind out of you.”
Ford’s neighbor, Chuck Wagner, said some people have already become frustrated after Ian. Many Southwest Florida residents are retirees who live in the area only half the year, spend hot summers up north, and hear that assistance may not be available to part-time residents.
“It’s all up in the air,” he said. “It could take years. Who knows?”
In Mexico Beach, Tom Wood, 82, is proof that progress will happen — slowly and painfully.
His beach business, the Driftwood Inn, was blown up and filled with ocean water when Michael made landfall on Oct. 10, 2018, with sustained winds of 160 mph (258 km/h). At first, he said, it seemed the only logical step was to burn.
But the storm passed and the bay still beckoned, Wood said, so he decided to rebuild. The new Driftwood Inn reopened in June with 24 rooms at its original location after a $13 million outlay and many headaches from insurance, government regulations and contractors.
Mexico Beach still desperately needs a grocery store to avoid a more than 10-mile (16-kilometer) 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 the people of Fort Myers Beach will do the same.
“I’m so glad we did it, not only for us, but for the city,” he said. “I think it just makes the city better.”