As the months have passed since Hurricane Ian blew across Fort Myers Beach in September, it has become increasingly clear that the quaint beach side community in Lee County so many have loved for generations is not going to come back as it once was.
Sad as that may be for those who grew up visiting the beachfront hotels, eating in local restaurants where you could sit on the sidewalk and drink a beer and shop for souvenirs at one of dozens of shops, it is true. That's the reality of Hurricane Ian, which crushed Fort Myers Beach Sept. 28,
Sure, some of what made the beach what it was will remain. But it will be different.
The question that now plagues city and county officials, property owners, developers and a host of others who are charged with rebuilding is how to define what different is. The answer is as broad as the question is general. And, because we are only six months into what is likely going to be a decade long project, when the focus is on the clean up and when the deals that will shape the beach's future are still being negotiated in back rooms, many of the questions are still being formulated.
The general idea is that given the vast devastation, the cost to rebuild and modern building codes, what was quaint and quirky will be replaced by what is expensive and exclusive, and that the once low-key beach community is likely going to become more like its affluent neighbors, with high dollar beachfront condos, homes and hotels.
But right now, six months after Ian blew across the community, residents and business owners are still trying to adjust to what has happened to their beloved beach town. For many, just coming to grips with the devastation is enough of an intellectual exercise.
Just a year ago the Shamrock Irish Pub at 2201 Estero Blvd. was a thriving bar, home to fans of the Green Bay Packers and a gathering spot across the road from the beach. The trim on the building was a bright Leprechaun green and pictures on the pub’s Facebook page showed it was a place where you went to celebrate even when there was not a specific occasion.
Today, the bar’s building sits at an angle, torn, it seems, from its foundation. The ground around it is nothing but sand still littered with debris. It’s almost as if the building was dropped on an abandoned lot. At the rear of the property, a large tree lays across a green bus. The brightness of the green trim is gone, it’s still there, but its faded and darkened. Inside, where revelers celebrated, is pure destruction.
About a week before the six-month anniversary of Hurricane Ian, a man parked a white Dodge Ram pickup truck along Delmar Avenue, the street running beside the Shamrock. He took pictures of the building and the bus.
He shook his head and gave a half smile. “I used to drink here.”
The past and present
The summary of what Ian did to Fort Myers Beach, and Southwest Florida in general, defies superlatives. Here is how a Florida State University report from the Florida Climate Center, Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies describes what happened:
“Ian made landfall on the 28th at Cayo Costa and then near Fort Myers, where the triple threat of high winds, high storm surge and wave action and heavy rain resulted in catastrophic damage and loss of life. Ian slowed down at landfall, prolonging the onslaught of high surge and winds and ultimately worsening impacts. While official high-water marks and peak surge levels are still under investigation, this region of Florida has likely not seen this level of combined high winds and storm surge since at least Hurricane Donna in 1960.”
The storm, while hitting Fort Myers Beach directly, brought devastation to communities up the west coast of Florida. Many of which are still feeling the aftereffects and dealing with a host of issues.
In that sense, Fort Myers Beach isn’t unique.
But if you happen to drive along Estero Boulevard today it seems as if the storm hit yesterday, not half a year ago. Buildings stand with interiors destroyed, homes are gutted, a trailer park people called home is a tangle of metal, debris still line the streets. Up and down the beach, business remain shuttered and shopping plazas are fenced off.
Traveling off Estero, onto one of the residential side streets, dozens and dozens of homes have campers on the lawn where people are living as they work to rebuild. On many of those streets, there are empty lots where homes once stood and there are plenty of homes which seem more likely headed for demolition than redevelopment.
The devastation is both structural and conversational.
Consider a Great Clips off of Colonial Parkway, where, even in mid-March, talk remained all about the hurricane. Two women chatted about never again riding out a storm. One had substantial damage to her roof and pool cage. The other lived on the second floor and was without power for three weeks. She’s thinking about moving to Oregon with her eight cats.
While the women talked, a man came in and added his name to the waiting list. When asked for his address so the salon could mail him coupons, he said “I ain’t got one right now.”
He lost his home after it flooded with six feet of water. He was living at a nearby church until he was able to get back to his house.
He had lived a mile from the water.
Other parts of Fort Myers and Lee, however, look like they are in another world. You see some trees down here and there. A lot of businesses have not been able to replace signs lost in the storm yet — but those look derelict, not storm-damaged.
“People are going to school, going to work, things are functioning as they did pre storm,” says Lee County Commission Chair Brian Hamman, who is also president and CEO of the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce. “On top of that, we’ve also seen that tourism is happening. It’s just different. It’s the business traveler who’s here to help, you know, make repairs and help the area’s recovery.”
Given the scope of the damage, and the reality of the situation, building back Fort Myers Beach is naturally going to lead to a different kind of community.
Developers and builders are coming in to look at homes and other properties that sustained damages with the thought of buying them up. Some of these developers are focused on repairing people’s existing homes.
Another segment of developers will likely demolish whatever is on the land now, even what is salvageable. This segment will rebuild the homes in new styles, using updated building codes and newer products, a far cry from the homes built in the 1960s and 1970s. That’s important to note because one reason for the higher costs is homes now must be built to meet codes passed after Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida in 1992.
Others will be condominium and multifamily developers who will step in with the intentions of building larger, more expensive projects.
That last one has already started.
In November, the Carousel Inn, first built in 1964, sold to a developer building a condo community next door. The result? A 27-unit hotel that had served beach visitors for just shy of six decades is becoming part of a development made up of 4,000-square-foot beachfront condo units with a starting price of $3.9 million.
The developer, part of the Dublin Real Estate Investment Group, paid $7 million for the property.
Not every condominium unit coming will get that price, of course, but several longtime Southwest Florida real estate professionals say most of the new inventory that will come online post-Ian will cost $1 million or more. The days of the $500,000 condo on Fort Myers Beach are over, says one broker.
The coming changes will not be only the types of homes alone. As anyone who has lived through or studied gentrification knows, as the new style and costs of home attracts a new demographic to the beach, shops and businesses that cater to this clientele won’t be far behind.
Unlike the residences, there likely won’t be a wholesale change to retail. Convenience stores, pharmacies and groceries are likely to remain because there is a need regardless of who lives at the beach.
As for existing retailers, the exodus off Fort Myers Beach has already begun.
Several beach retailers have signed leases to move into new digs at the Bell Tower shops, 11 miles inland , off U.S. 41 in Fort Myers. That includes the popular La Ola Surfside Restaurant.
Owner Tom Houghton has not abandoned the beach altogether. He’s still operating out of a shipping container and food truck outside Time Square right on the beach, along with a couple of other eateries.
Houghton, in a statement, says the move was made as result of seeing “how vulnerable we are on the beach.”
“Bell Tower will provide a safer home base while the island gets rebuilt, and we await a hopeful future location back on the beach,” he says.
While it’s easy to focus on the devastation and talk about anticipated change to Fort Myers Beach, there are some signs of life among the boarded-up buildings and work crews.
Driving along the beach there is a sign offering parking for $10 while you get lunch, a jogger is out for an early afternoon run, people are laying out on the beach, cyclists are riding along the edge of the road and a table is set up outside Time Square selling sunglasses.
And if that wasn’t enough, all around the town you see signs proclaiming #FMBStrong.
So, whether the beach community everyone loves is gone forever or today’s projections are exaggerated, there is one certainty. The rebuild is at the very beginning. As Hamman says, the first months was about recovery. There remains a lot of work to be done on Fort Myers Beach in the coming years. Buildings need to be rebuilt, lives need to return to what passes for normal and government leaders need to come up with a plan for what they want the town to look like and put guardrails in place to make sure their vision is followed.
Regardless of what direction it all goes, it is inevitable that Fort Myers Beach is forever changed.
“I see it as progress,” Randy Thibaut, founder of LSI Cos. a prominent commercial estate firm in Fort Myers, says of the changes he sees coming.
“There's no choice in the matter. The beach, unfortunately, and it’s so sad, got devastated from the hurricane and there's only one choice and that’s to rebuild. … We can't get around that. So it has to be built back with new construction costs that are much higher and with more restrictive guidelines …The proof is in the pudding that it has to be rebuilt and it has to be rebuilt for a coastal community in a manner that's going to be able to weather future storms.”
Louis Llovio is the commercial real estate editor at the Business Observer. Before going to work at the Observer, the longtime business writer worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Maryland Daily Record and for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He lives in Tampa.