A new hurricane season is near. In Fort Myers Beach, the old one never left.


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Nov 17, 2023

A new hurricane season is near. In Fort Myers Beach, the old one never left.

FORT MYERS BEACH — The front door of an empty yellow house creaks and sways with

FORT MYERS BEACH — The front door of an empty yellow house creaks and sways with the sea breeze.

It's never locked: Why bother, the owner says, when there's nothing left to protect?

Stained on the 1926 beach cottage's walls are reminders of the hurricane that made landfall eight months ago: High-water marks, left behind by a surging Gulf of Mexico, stretch 8 feet high. Blinds are browned and withered. Doors are off hinges.

The owner of this home on Jefferson Street is Anita Cereceda, the first mayor of Fort Myers Beach when the town incorporated in 1995. On Sept. 28, 16 people died in this barrier island town when Hurricane Ian, a menacing Category 4 storm, brought 150-mph winds and 15 feet of surge.

Cereceda oversaw the creation of this vibrant community of fewer than 6,000 residents. And she's one of many who witnessed its devastation.

The start of a new hurricane season is gutting for residents and local leaders, who are still assessing how they could have better prepared for Ian. The attention the battered seaside community received in the storm's aftermath soon receded, much like the raging waters. As they work to repair homes and businesses, residents say they often feel forgotten by the national media, government and insurance companies.

"I’m dreading hurricane season. I think it's going to create an enormous amount of anxiety for folks," Cereceda said.

"So many people, like me, are still rebuilding our homes. My roof has not been repaired yet. What does that look like if we got even a tropical storm? Does that set me back a year? There's so many unknowns."

Hurricane Ian killed more than 150 people. Its storm surge drowned 36 people in Lee County alone. It's the costliest storm in Florida history.

As the death toll ticked higher, the question swirled: Could the widespread human toll have been avoided?

All eyes turned to Lee County's initial response. Lee County was on the edge of the "cone of uncertainty" as early as the evening of Sept. 25 — more than 24 hours before officials issued the first evacuation orders, archived storm advisories show. Some critics pointed to how county leaders downplayed the forecast.

Lee County leaders think they can do better next time.

Lee County Commissioner Kevin Ruane told the Tampa Bay Times that hurricane evacuation messages need to be more urgent. He says a near miss from Hurricane Irma in 2017, in which officials issued mandatory evacuations, made Lee County residents hesitant to trust the Ian forecast.

But he also lobbed blame at constituents who said they were going to be evacuating but didn't. Ruane oversaw the Lee County Sheriff's Office during the storm.

"People always want to look back on Ian and say: ‘We should have done this,’ or ‘We should have done that,’" said Ruane, who is in his third year as a commissioner and is the former Sanibel mayor. "The people lied to us. The people weren't as truthful to us. I hate using the word lie, but they just were not truthful."

"I’m not saying we weren't part of the problem in trying to be overly cautious or overly conservative," issuing evacuation orders, Ruane said. "Everybody can always look at fault in this situation. But the constituent has to be more honest with us, too."

Pat Pickett was one of many who sheltered at home during Ian — and one of many reckoning with that decision.

The scars on her legs remind her of that day when the canal behind her mobile home swelled, invading their home. She and her husband, Leslie, stood in water up to their chins as the surging water bashed furniture against their bodies.

The couple, who have been married 65 years, stayed behind because Leslie has dementia and feels most comfortable at home. They never lied to anybody about that, Pat says.

Though they survived, their home was destroyed. Weeks later, Leslie fell and gashed his head while using the bathroom, which was still damp and messy. He spent a week in the hospital.

The couple felt frustration, especially when it comes to insurance, which has barely covered the damage so far. For their destroyed home, they received a check for $20,250 from Citizens Property Insurance Corp. The couple have also seen payouts from Kin Insurance and $700 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, she said. Weeks before the storm, the couple got an offer to buy their home for $350,000.

"I’m thankful for what we still have," said Pat, with Leslie quietly nodding by her side. The couple live in an apartment in Fort Myers, a few miles east of where their mobile home stood. They have a few picture frames from their old house, and little else. The monthly rent expenses are pushing $4,000.

"But at this point, we really don't know what we’re going to do," Pat, 84, said.

When asked about people like the Picketts, who stayed behind because of a medical condition and not complacency, Ruane committed that the county will, in the future, have better shelter options for residents with special needs.

"That was a message we heard loudly: We need to do better with special needs," Ruane said. "We will make sure we have staff, from our paramedics, to our medical people. … We need to have more people to be available to address our special-needs population."

During a Jeopardy episode that aired on Jan. 17, host Ken Jennings posed an $800 question to contestants:

Near the end of September, winds of this hurricane hit 155 mph, driving a storm surge toward Fort Myers, Florida.

Nobody knew the answer.

It was just over 100 days after landfall.

"Do you know how many people here were genuinely upset by that? I mean, like, emotionally upset," said Cereceda, the former mayor.

"For weeks, people here were saying, ‘Can you believe nobody knew that?’"

It mirrors the general sentiment felt by residents around Fort Myers Beach: The rest of the nation moved on.

Ian left an estimated 12 million cubic yards of wreckage, according to data provided by the county. On Estero Boulevard, the main drag that runs down Fort Myers Beach, debris piles line the road, standing taller than the homes that once were there. Houses ripped from their foundation tilt on their sides.

While some praise Gov. Ron DeSantis’ response in Lee County after the storm, others, including Pickett (a registered Republican), question why the governor spends so much time out of state.

"They want to go to the White House," Pickett said of DeSantis and his wife, Casey. "But what they really need to do is take care of the people in Florida first. That should be their priority, not going to Japan and different things like that."

When Cereceda hired a contractor to rebuild, she told the crew she hoped to cook Thanksgiving dinner in her home this year. It's still unclear if that will happen. But when the day comes, she has just three items from her home to move: A rocking chair used by her mother, her grandmother's antique hall tree and a dining room table built by a friend.

Some people, like Lisa Latorre, didn't save anything.

Latorre, 62, has lived in a tent beside a seafood wholesaler on San Carlos Island since the day Ian made landfall. Her 27-foot sailboat broke loose during the storm, crashing into a nearby building. She says she rode out the rest of the storm with a friend, hopping from boat to boat. One thought kept coming to mind amid the wind and waves: "I think we’re going to die here."

Eventually, she climbed onto a shrimper's outrigger and shimmied onto a roof to reach dry land, she said. She had nothing left.

Now, she picks up part-time jobs here and there, from ringing a bell for the Salvation Army to working at a fish house near her encampment. A stroke of luck on a scratch-off lotto ticket earned her enough to buy an old pickup truck.

"Sometimes you feel helpless," she said. "I’m not the only survivor here."

One hot night in late April, Latorre sat on a plastic folding chair stirring dinner over a propane fire. It was the third time that week she had eaten rice and beans with chicken dumplings.

The storm left more than 130,000 in Lee County like her in need of housing assistance, according to data provided by the county.

"We’re broken down, and we’re broke," Latorre said.

In the first months after the hurricane, stories from Fort Myers Beach centered around the day it reached land: Where you were. How you survived. What you lost. But in recent months, those stories have been replaced with tales of painstaking insurance fights.

Of the half-dozen homeowners who spoke to the Times from Fort Myers Beach, all said they were either still waiting on insurance payouts or were in a dispute with an insurance company over a payout.

The state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. received more than 63,500 claims after the storm, according to data provided by the company. Citizens has so far paid out $1.6 billion of an estimated $3.6 billion, according to spokesperson Michael Peltier.

Charlie Whitehead, a retired writer who works in construction, said the proposal to replace his destroyed mobile home is $218,000. He's supposed to get $70,000 in flood insurance, but the money hasn't arrived, he said.

"I don't have dime No. 1 of the flood insurance money," Whitehead said, sitting on a patio table outside the remnants of his home.

"You might as well just holler ‘Citizens’ out the window. Because it works the same way," said Whitehead, 65. "I can tell you the name of my Citizens property adjuster because I’ve called her 50 times, and I’ve never spoken to her."

James Van Ingen, 67, spends his days helping to rebuild the Matanzas Inn in Fort Myers Beach. When he gets home, he would rather relax over a Budweiser and some Marlboros with pals. Instead, he's battling insurance companies.

During the storm, a steel shed in his backyard was picked up and slammed to the ground. His insurer doesn't want to pay for it because it's not technically part of his house, Van Ingen said.

"It says right in my policy they owe me another $1,618," he said. "I’m busy calling the guy. It's ridiculous. It just disgusts me."

As officials prepare emergency plans before hurricane season, the decisions made during Ian are being weighed and scrutinized. That includes decisions from the Fort Myers Beach Fire District.

In Fort Myers Beach alone, 2,200 structures were damaged by the storm, according to National Hurricane Center estimates. One of those buildings was Station 31 on Estero Boulevard, a two-story building that housed an ambulance, fire engine and a utility terrain vehicle.

Last year's hurricane plan called for the department to leave the vehicles behind on the barrier island as the storm zeroed in, said Scott Wirth, the new fire chief in Fort Myers Beach and second-in-command during the storm.

This was their logic at the time: If the bridges are taken out, rescuers could return to the island and have vehicles ready to go.

But here's what they didn't consider: If all the bridges to the island had been destroyed, they would "have been taken out by enough surge to have also taken out our station," Wirth said in an interview.

The vehicles were kept in a fire station that was built partly in the 1940s. It was no match for the wall of water that flooded the island. The storm surge "pushed them all together and stacked them into the corner. It moved them almost like you would see in a washing machine," Wirth said.

"So we lost the fire station — and we lost the vehicles inside." It's costing the district nearly $1.3 million to replace them.

Emergency plans being polished before the start of the hurricane season will correct that, Wirth said.

As for Lee County government's future emergency plans, officials hope to coordinate with the Lee County School District to open shelters faster. The county doesn't have jurisdiction over the district, which oversees a majority of the hurricane shelters at its schools, Ruane said.

The county also is working with electric utilities to strengthen their power systems and make the infrastructure sturdier when the next big storm comes. That includes looking into ways to put more power lines underground, an expensive transition.

"Some of these things I’m not going to be able to do in time for hurricane season," Ruane said. "But we’re starting to at least lay the groundwork."

Local authorities acknowledged in interviews that they had no organized way to identify residents staying behind last time. They agreed a better accounting would have helped search-and-rescue operations. But a quick solution has proven elusive.

"It would’ve helped if we knew who stayed, and where they were," Wirth said, adding: "But I don't know how to logistically make that happen."

Dan Allers peered out to sea. A rare moment of calm washed over the new mayor of Fort Myers Beach, who inherited the tiring role of a figurehead of hope and strength in a time of rebuilding.

It was a Saturday morning, and Allers sat on a bench near Times Square, the town's once-bustling tourism center that was severely damaged in the storm. A few feet away, a makeshift memorial lined the sidewalk leading to the beach. Items left behind by the dead — stuffed animals, candles, TV remotes — formed a pile in the sand.

A hint of normalcy swirled about town. Beachgoers crowded the shoreline in chairs while children and their parents played in the gulf. Anglers cast lines in the water and birds circled overhead.

Eight months ago, Allers was a few blocks away, knee-deep in brown sludge as the surge receded. He remembers seeing two of his constituents in the first hours of rescue and recovery. One was draped outside of a window. The other pinned against a tree. Both dead.

A new hurricane season is here. But to Allers and others on the island, the old one never left.

"We certainly hope we don't go back to back," said Allers, who lives in a camper parked in front of his destroyed house. "The uncertainty and the unknowing is the hardest part."

• • •

Rising Threat: A special report on flood risk and climate change

PART 1: The Tampa Bay Times partnered with the National Hurricane Center for a revealing look at future storms.

PART 2: Even weak hurricanes can cause huge storm surges. Experts say people don't understand the risk.

PART 3: Tampa Bay has huge flood risk. What should we do about it?

INTERACTIVE MAP: Search your Tampa Bay neighborhood to see the hurricane flood risk.