Hurricane Ian — One Year Later: Early Stages
Lee County recovery plans are just beginning
As the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Ian has arrived, state and federal funds are filtering into Lee County to aid in its recovery from the costliest storm in Florida history. County government officials are urging Tallahassee and Washington D.C. to provide more help for the county – as it bore the brunt of the damage from Ian, the third-costliest hurricane in American history.
The county estimates there is currently an unmet need of between $8 billion and $10 billion for the county to fully recover from Ian’s destruction.
Lee County Assistant County Manager Glen Salyer recently drafted a letter, signed off on by the Lee County Board of County Commissioners, calling on the county’s congressional delegation to deliver more aid for hurricane recovery.
In a county where many roofs remain under tarps and a large number of homes and businesses on the barrier islands were lost, the county is currently embarking on a two-pronged approach to recovery.
First on the county’s radar is planning for the distribution of $1.1 billion in an emergency disaster community block grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Of those funds, 60% will be dedicated to housing repairs and construction, with 32% for infrastructure such as roads, bridges and water systems. About 5% will go towards administration, 2% to planning and 1% to public services.
The county is also pursuing the identification of rebuilding projects through its Project Resiliency Long-Term Recovery Task Force, which will allow the county to request more than the $1.1 billion HUD has offered so far. The task force has sought out project requests from communities around the county, including towns, cities and schools. Lee County Commissioner Kevin Ruane, who is chairing that task force, said more than $9 billion has been identified in potential projects.
Ruane expects the county to receive greater funding from the federal government.
“It’s going to be a long-term process to advocate for a lot more funding,” he said. He cited examples from other hurricanes where the federal government increased its initial allotment for relief. He estimates that the total damage in Lee County from Hurricane Ian was about $35 billion.
“We as a community, through one voice with the task force, are coming together on all the projects to rebound as a region,” Ruane said. “These projects we are doing are massive projects.”
Among them is the ongoing repair of the Sanibel Causeway.
Ruane said there was damage to water systems throughout the county, which need to be addressed.
“There was not one water system that didn’t breach,” Ruane said.
On Aug. 15, the Lee County Board of County Commissioners approved a $5.1 million contract with Hagerty Consulting to develop 13 neighborhood community and resiliency plans for the county, which is develop the task force plans. The commissioners also approved $590,000 with Hagerty Consulting, which has offices in Tallahassee, for consulting work relating to the planning for the community block development grant and for long-term recovery plans. County commissioners also approved spending $359,325 on Aug. 15 for goods and services relating to Hurricane Ian recovery.
Lee County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Brian Hamman said part of the delay in repairing county facilities was due to management wanting to wait for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to inspect properties so the county wouldn’t risk full reimbursement before doing any work.
“When you look at how far we have come in our recovery, it is hard to believe that it has been a year since Hurricane Ian devastated this county,” Hamman said. “Lee County is strong and resilient and we came back with a determination and a focus that was truly impressive.”
Hamman said that while work is underway to rebuild, “for our hardest-hit island communities there is still work to be done getting our infrastructure built back better and stronger than before, and making sure the resources get to the citizens who need it the most.”
On Aug. 15, the county approved a contract for $1,459,410 with Answer Advisory to repair county-owned facilities damaged by Hurricane Ian. The contract is mostly for roofing. flooring, drywall, heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment at various locations. The contract does not include funding to replace facilities that were considered totaled or facing more serious damage such as the Fort Myers Beach restrooms at Lynn Hall Memorial Park or Bowditch Point Park, or the Fort Myers Beach Pier. The contract also doesn’t cover any repairs to county facilities on Sanibel.
The commissioners also approved $573,817 with AECOM and $662,495 for management and construction administration services on the facility repairs.
Fran Crone, manager of the Southwest Florida and Lee County Fair Association, questioned why the list of county properties were not identified with the spending resolution and whether the Whaley Hall at the Lee Civic Center in North Fort Myers would be a part of those repairs.
“It’s basically destroyed and nothing has been addressed,” Crone said.
Ehab Guirguis, Lee County director of Facilities and Construction Management, said in response to a follow-up question on Whaley Hall by Commissioner Mike Greenwell, who represents District 5, that “we don’t know if this building is repairable or not.” Greenwell asked if there was a timeline and Guirguis said there wasn’t.
Greenwell said about $100,000 has been spent on repairs at the civic center and expects it to be open next year for the 100th anniversary of the county fair.
Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce Jacki Liszak said the repair of the county-owned Fort Myers Beach Pier is critical to the town’s rebuilding.
“I can’t tell you how important it is for us to get that pier back and get it back fast,” Liszak said to Salyer at a recent community meeting involving the $1.1 billion HUD grant.
Liszak also said that more of the county’s planning needs to involve business recovery.
“We’ve had hundreds of people who have left our community. I think everybody here knows many people who have left and moved elsewhere who have left here because they can’t find work and can’t find housing,” Liszak said. “We’ve had dozens and dozens of businesses that are still closed because they don’t even have a structure to operate out of.”
Lee County Commissioner Ray Sandelli, District 3, which encompasses Fort Myers Beach, said decisions still need to be made if the pier will be rebuilt in the same location.
“I know the pier is very important to people,” he said.
“Is that the right place for the pier? Probably so,” he said. “The time it takes is frustrating.”
At a Congressional Oversight hearing in August over FEMA’s response to Hurricane Ian in Lee County, Hamman blamed the slow inspection of FEMA in delaying the county’s rebuilding of county facilities.
“It didn’t help that FEMA initially blamed its slow process on our local land development code. This triggered waves of distrust,” Hamman said. “FEMA needed more of its inspectors here sooner rather than later.”
“Our administrative team of the county doesn’t have the confidence to fix or repair anything right now relating to county facilities or county infrastructure because until it gets an inspection by FEMA they are risking the reimbursement that could come from making those repairs,” he said.
“Many residents call us daily ‘Why haven’t you torn down the restrooms at Fort Myers Beach at Lynn Hall Memorial Park that look terrible?’ We are told we are not even allowed to touch them. If we touch them, if we clean them, we are risking reimbursement.”
According to Guirguis, FEMA has now inspected all of the county’s facilities.
It’s not just county facilities people are worried about.
The cost of insurance is going up for homeowners and many are having trouble getting fully reimbursed by insurance companies for damage from Hurricane Ian.
Sandelli recommends that homeowners hire adjusters to make sure they get what they are owed from insurance.
“It’s a challenging time for everybody,” he said. “We live in a state that is prone to hurricanes. It won’t be the last hurricane.”
Ruane said the county “moved mountains” in its response to Hurricane Ian. He cited the removal of debris, which he said the federal government funded 75% with the rest covered by the county and state, as a major accomplishment.
Ruane said more needs to be done to clean out the county’s waterways.
“My priority is to achieve as many things as we can and utilize multiple funding agencies,” he said.
Hamman is optimistic about the county’s future and its recovery from Hurricane Ian.
“When it is all said and done, Lee County is going to have some of the most pristine beaches and newest resorts in the entire state of Florida and that is going to continue to drive our economy, create jobs, and make sure we remain the top destination of choice,” Hamman said.
Ruane said the recovery will take time. “It’s a five-year plan, not a one-year plan,” he said.
Facts & figures
Hurricane Ian struck Lee County with winds of up to 155 mph and brought up to 16 feet of storm surge. It destroyed more than 5,000 homes and 284 businesses. Another 910 businesses suffered major damage. Lee County incurred $112 billion in damages.
More than 11 million cubic yards of debris were left scattered countywide.
The storm impacted every beach, all county parks and every traffic signal.
Lee County facilities suffered damages of approximately $297 million.
From the time of Hurricane Ian through June 30, Lee County Community Development staff accepted 72,516 permit applications, 45,411 of which were identified by the applicant as being hurricane-related. Staff issued 68,362 permits, 43,006 of which were identified by the applicant as being hurricane-related. In the same period, 207,056 inspections were requested and 131,323 inspections were completed, of which 108,831 were hurricane-related.
• Florida Department of Emergency Management housing assistance through July 19:
Temporary Trailer Program: 1,198 trailers installed, 1,066 households moved in
• Sheltering in Home for Recovery Continuation (SHRC) Program
701 work orders for repairs issued
126 repairs in process
87 repairs completed
National Flood Insurance aid to county property owners through June 16: $2.8 billion
• FEMA housing assistance
98,435 households approved for individual assistance of $473 million
23,599 households approved for rental assistance of $67.7 million
22 applicants remaining to be housed
623 Households currently licensed into direct housing
• Permanent housing programs
Owner Occupied Rehab: Assisting 39 households with damage from Ian
Past Due Rent/Mortgage Assistance: 87 applications being processed
• FUNDING – Hurricane Housing Recovery Program (HHRP)
$8.2 million in initial awards approved by county commissioners
$3.5 million to rehab 89 owner-occupied homes
$3.9 million for downpayment assistance to 36 low income/special needs households
$750,000 to provide demolition/reconstruction of three homes for low income households.
Sources: Lee County Government and FEMA