One year later: Recovery assistance promised, provided
Promises of assistance and pledges to see Fort Myers Beach through its recovery was the message delivered by an impressive roster of state and county officials at a reopening of Bayside Park Thursday. While an announcement from Gov. Ron DeSantis Thursday afternoon for $14 million to the Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District was proof of those words, it would be the unveiling of a new clock at Times Square that would bring hundreds of people together in cheer, laughter, hugs, handshakes, dancing and embrace.
At a park on Old San Carlos Boulevard that was filled with pile of debris a year ago but which had been recently restored to its former glory with a $500,000 grant from the private donations of a hurricane recovery fund run by First Lady Casey DeSantis, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez told the crowd
“Our administration remains committed. We are going to be with you every step of the way.”
Later that afternoon, Gov. DeSantis announced that $338 million had been approved for communities throughout the state for hurricane aid recovery — part of the $350 million the state approved in its budget earlier this year. While the initial announcement didn’t immediately spell out if other aid for Fort Myers Beach was on its way, the town is expected to get funding for some projects it has requested – including new lighting. The town — the hardest hit area of Lee County — is also looking for funding for a new town hall, for roads and to make up for a loss of revenue lost due to a $2.7 billion drop in property tax value.
The town is also seeking to have an $11.9 million bridge loan forgiven by the state. Asked if Gov. DeSantis would forgive the loan to Fort Myers Beach, Nunez said “I will certainly talk to him about it. I haven’t discussed that. I know the governor is committed to the full-time recovery.”
Sen. Jonathan Martin (R-33) said talks are under way about forgiving the loan.
“There is talk about that,” he said. Martin suggested the state could also forgive the interest if not the entire amount.
Officials promised they would not turn their backs on Fort Myers Beach.
“The State of Florida is not going to forget the pain you endured,” said Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.
As heartfelt as the promises and words were from state politicians at Bayside Park and as nice of a sight the park was with its colorful shade sales and stage for music (some of which survived Hurricane Ian), it was a clock that brought that the community most together.
The clock, donated by George and Linda Merschman of Illinois, brought a rapture of applause at Times Square Thursday morning that rivaled the serenading of the town’s former utilities director Christy Cory when it as announced water had been fully restored after Hurricane Ian.
The clock may seem like a simple fixture though at a cost of $40,000 to the Merschmans plus electrical work installation costs for the town, it was a major project to replace the former clock that been there for 21 hours until being destroyed by Hurricane Ian. The clock’s symbolism for a Times Square devastated by Ian could not be more pronounced. Hundreds of people surrounded the clock for the unveiling with cameras up to take photos as noon approached. Some waited hours for a good spot at Times Square to see the unveiling which has been anticipated for weeks. After the clapping, there was hugging, handshaking and dancing on Times Square as music took over nearby at La Ola Restaurant and down Old San Carlos Blvd. at Snug Harbor Waterfront Restaurant, Wahoo Willie’s, Matanzas on the Bay and Yucatan Beach Stand.
Ms. Merschman said she and her husband started coming to Fort Myers Beach in 2017 and invested in building homes on the island. “It’s a sign of rebirth,” Ms. Merschman said. “It’s the least we can do. It brings back memories.”
Mr. Merschman said the couple had more donation plans for the beach. They will be donating a percentage of each home they sell on Fort Myers Beach to the town to rebuild its pool at Bay Oaks Recreational Campus.
“This is kind of our happy place,” Ms. Merschman said. “It’s where we get away from everything.”
Closing out the Bayside Park reopening ceremony was the Fort Myers Beach Elementary School Choir. Lee County Schools Supt. Dr. Chris Bernier spoke about the school board’s decision to rebuild Fort Myers Beach Elementary School.
“Schools are not just a place. They are the heart of a community,” he said. “They are where dreams begin.”
Other state officials in attendance who spoke were Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie, Rep. Spencer Roach (R-79), Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka (R-78), Rep. Adam Botana (R-80) and Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno.
Fort Myers Beach Vice Mayor Jim Atterholt said he spoke to Patronis Thursday to ask that the state and insurance commissioner’s office investigates the underpaying of insurance payouts to Hurricane Ian victims. Atterholt said it was not enough to fine insurance companies. He said the state must ensure the insurance companies pay out to what is owed to property owners.
Atterholt said he believed the attendance of so many state officials at Thursday’s ceremonies “further invests them in the island. I think it will pay dividends in the long run.” He said the outpouring of the community on the one-year anniversary of Ian was “a wonderful mix of reverence and optimism.”