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Six months after Hurricane Ian slammed into southwestern Florida, there is hope through the rebuilding of homes, businesses and even the reopening of tourism.
Still, it will be years before real life returns to the hard-hit areas of Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel.
FEMA has distributed more than $7 billion in federal disaster assistance to storm victims. Still, residents are fighting insurers to demand payments and start rebuilding.
Bonita Springs resident Richard Gilbert estimates that rebuilding his home will take another two years. For now, he lives in a state-provided trailer. A sign in front of his trailer reads “Almost Home.”
“I’m going home soon… I’ll be back. I’m better than ever,” Gilbert said. “People are frustrated because they can’t get what they want when they want it. But, I’m not so empowered, and I’m happy with what I got when I got it.”
Gilbert said only three of his community of 39 residents have returned. He knows at least two of his residents who have sold properties.
Gilbert plans to stay. He is pleased with the progress he has seen in just six months.
Sanibel Island, 30 miles northwest of Hurricane Ian’s direct hit, is also showing signs of new life just six months after the storm washed away part of the iconic Sanibel Causeway.
The causeway reopened in October 2022, giving hurricane recovery workers and residents easy access to the island after FDOT made temporary repairs to the bridge.
Still, with few housing options, it is difficult for companies to find dedicated workers. Ron Rich, general manager of his Mudbugs Restaurant in Sanibel, said most of his employees commute from Fort Myers or Coral Springs, more than 20 miles away.
Meanwhile, his restaurant is only 50% open than it was before Hurricane Ian.
“It’s going to be tough, but we’re going to have to make it work,” Rich said.
Fort Myers Beach saw storm surges up to 15 feet high and gusts approaching 150 mph when Ian landed. Six months later, Deputy Mayor Jim Atterholt believes more than a third of his annual population has returned to the area.
Still, he’s happy with the Spring Break crowds who chose to return amid crumbling, destroyed churches and homes.
“The hotel and restaurant are open.
But insurance companies, along with other residents and officials in the area, are delaying recovery efforts to rebuild these buildings sooner, he said.
“Our challenge is to pay claims. State regulators need to step in aggressively and put pressure on these insurers,” said Atterholt. “There are certain companies that are particularly unethical and are really slowing recovery efforts.”
In downtown Fort Myers, most businesses have reopened after streets were flooded 12 feet in the months after Hurricane Ian. Mayor Kevin Anderson said half a dozen are still undergoing conversions and repairs. In the city of Fort Myers, approximately 300 homes have been declared uninhabitable. Anderson said 50 would need to be demolished.
Despite the damage, property values are actually rising, he says.
“There are people lining up in those spaces,” Anderson said.
Across 19 counties, coroners have reported 149 storm-related deaths.
Hurricane Ian is considered one of the most damaging storms in history, after Katrina and Harvey.
Six months after Hurricane Ian, hope is alive as Southwest Florida slowly recovers – NBC 6 South Florida – New Hubs Uk
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