Lessons from Hurricane Michael applied to Ian’s recovery

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) – Four years before Category 4 Ian wiped out parts of Southwest Florida, the state Panhandle had its own encounter with a even stronger hurricane, Michael. The Category 5 storm nearly destroyed a city, fractured thousands of homes and businesses, and caused approximately $25 billion in damage.

With damage from Ian estimated multiple times and the Fort Myers area beginning a cleanup that will be even greater than after Michael, the two areas are collaborating on the way forward as South Florida. residents wonder what their region will look like in a few years.

Mayor Greg Brudnicki and other leaders from a rebuilt Panama City traveled to the southwest coast this week at the request of Governor Ron DeSantis to help officials plan the way forward. Keeping crews and trucks in the area to clear mountains of debris is task No. 1 because all other progress depends on it, Brudnicki said, and that may mean getting loans as a bridge until the federal refund money appears.

“You can’t fix anything until you clean it up,” Brudnicki said.

Tiny Mexico Beach, which was nearly flattened by Michael in 2018, has even fewer structures and people than before the storm. The city’s mayor, Al Cathey, said one of the biggest challenges in recovering from a natural disaster is fundamental: looking forward, not backward.

With little in town after Michael, Cathey said, residents gathered daily in a portable kitchen to chart the way 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 deaths, Ian was the third deadliest storm to hit the continental United States this century behind Hurricane Katrinawhich caused around 1,400 deaths, and Hurricane Sandywhich killed 233 people despite weakening from a tropical storm just before landfall.

Recovery will be more complicated in southwest Florida than it was in the Panhandle due to population, Cathey said. Bay County, which includes Panama City and Mexico Beach, is home to just 180,000 people, 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 that have been tossed ashore around Lee County could take months, and there are remains of homes and businesses scattered by 155 mph (250 km/h) winds or flooded by seawater that surged for miles inland along streams and canals.

One of the damaged ships and waterlogged homes belongs to Mike Ford, who is preparing 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 area — would be better as an RV park where people can come and go than a permanent neighborhood, he said. Residents could be ripe for redemption or conversion after Ian, especially as he and others had to repair the 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 it’s happened,” said Ford, who lost a valuable collection of Beatles guitars and records for Ian’s benefit. . “It kind of cuts the wind off you.”

Ford neighbor Chuck Wagner said some people were already frustrated with Ian. Many Southwest Florida residents are retirees who only live in the area half the year, spending the hot summers up north, and they hear that help might not be available for the part-time residents.

“It’s all up in the air,” he said. “It could take years. Who knows?”

In Mexico Beach, 82-year-old Tom Wood is proof that progress will happen – slowly and painfully.

His beachfront business, the Driftwood Inn, was destroyed and filled with seawater when Michael made landfall with sustained winds of 160 mph (258 km/h) on October 10, 2018. Initially, a-t he said, the only logical step seemed to be giving up.

But the storm passed and the Gulf kept beckoning, Wood said, so he decided to rebuild. The new Driftwood Inn reopened in June with 24 rooms in its original location after a $13 million outlay and numerous headaches from insurance, government regulations and contractors.

Mexico Beach is still in desperate need of a grocery store to avoid the more than 10 miles to the nearest one, he said, and a pharmacy and more restaurants would be nice. 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 just for us but for the city,” he said. “It makes the city better, I think.”

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