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Hurricane Ian — One Year Later: Turmoil turns to Resilience

Hard hit a year ago, community is recovering

By NATHAN MAYBERG - | Oct 2, 2023

The Pink Shell on Fort Myers Beach is among properties still in recovery. With many amenities now open, they are accepting reservations. NATHAN MAYBERG

While sunny Southwest Florida is a hot-spot destination for those looking for white sand beaches and waterfront views, Hurricane Ian shifted the sense of normalcy for many across the region. One year later, things are starting to look up.  

Many of the most popular areas that feature pristine coastlines of the Gulf of Mexico suffered heavy damage from the near-Category 5 storm that hit Lee County on Sept. 28, 2022.

Businesses have been working to get back on their feet, and assistance has come in from all around the country and beyond. Unfortunately, some were not able to rebound and have closed for good. 

Amidst the turmoil, there is a great sense of resiliency in the community, and numerous businesses and local favorites have either already reopened their doors or have plans to build back better in the coming years.

Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau Chair and Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman said during these past summer months, branding and messaging had kicked into full gear. This is especially important as the area continues to recover from Ian. 

“In years past, we never had to really market to bring people down here during the winter, they kind of just naturally do it,” Hamman said. “So we always have focused our marketing efforts on getting people to visit here during the summer and ‘slower’ months.”

Social media messaging is always at the forefront, as Hamman said live webcams broadcasting sunny spots in Southwest Florida are in the works. 

“To see how beautiful it is, and it is rebuilding, and that progress has been made on recovery efforts,” Hamman said. 

One of the largest events each year, the Island Hopper Songwriter Festival, is a main focus once again, taking place from Sept. 22 to Oct. 1 at 18 venues throughout Southwest Florida including Fort Myers Beach, Captiva, Cape Coral, and Fort Myers. 

“That’s pretty cool when you can not only create destination marketing, but a destination event in itself to get people here,” Hamman said. 

While many beachfront hotels on barrier islands have yet to open back up for business, the beach itself and businesses in the area have. 

“The beach is open and ready for business,” Hamman said. “There are a lot of businesses out there on the beaches that are trying to make a go of it. They’ve come up with a lot of creative ways to serve their customers, and certainly would love to see local folks drive over there and support them.”

In the VCB’s most recent report looking at tourism data, from October to December of 2022, right after the storm, visitors were down more than 50%, with visitor expenditures down more than 30%

Looking at data from April through June of 2023, visitors were down more than 50%, with visitor expenditures down more than 40%. 

County officials said as of Aug. 2, there are more than 10,000 total rooms available for visitors, which is 70% of what the county had to offer prior to Hurricane Ian. 

County officials said it is difficult to make projections on what next season will look like, as recovery will be driven by the reopening of hotel rooms and vacation rentals. 

“We do anticipate that several properties will either be opening (Margaritaville) or fully reopening (Diamondhead and Pink Shell) at the end of this year, and there are properties that will likely open in early 2024 (it is too soon to name any properties yet),” county officials stated. 

The VCB’s current campaign is “My Fort Myers.” Officials say the campaign is designed to “tap into the emotional attachment and fondness people have for our destination and, by doing so, reignite their passion and commitment to visiting.” It is centered on personal testimonials from visitors and residents who can speak firsthand about the human connections and great memories they have made here.

Hamman said he has full faith that those businesses that have already reopened, and those that are building a new, will be back to full strength in no time. 

“You’re seeing tremendous efforts,” Hamman said. “Diamondhead appears to be completely open and ready to go on Fort Myers Beach. The Pink Shell just celebrated the reopening of its swimming pool. The beach out in front of Pink Shell is just beautiful right now. Many of them are working to open and serve customers as quickly as possible. Some of them will need to be completely rebuilt, and those I think are going through the process and figuring out what they’ll be.

“I think those properties can be rebuilt in a very attractive manner that will actually enhance our destination for the future. We could have the freshest, newest sand in the state of Florida since it’ll all be renourished, and we’ll have the newest, freshest hotel rooms and resorts in the state of Florida as well. And at that point, with the right marketing, we could really make that an attractive destination that the world will want to come visit.”

Hamman said a bright spot since the early aftermath of Ian is that beaches are now clean. He himself went down to Fort Myers beach to get a first-hand look at one of the area’s most popular destinations. 

“I really enjoyed my time out there with my kids,” Hamman said. “If you’re looking to go back out to Fort Myers Beach or even the beaches that are open on Sanibel and make some happy memories, now is the time to do it. And while you’re there, you’ll get a chance to support some of the businesses that are open.”

Hamman said now, more than ever, is when local residents should be supporting local business.

“The beach businesses are actually counting on us locals right now,” Hamman said. “Typically, those hotels would be full of guests that would just walk downstairs and use their businesses. Well, many of the hotels are not open on the beaches yet. With that being the case, they’re counting on folks like us who are a short drive away to come out there and make a nice day trip to the beach and be a customer and support them.”