After Hurricane Ian, Who Will Get to Call This Beach Town Home?

Melissa Hill has gotten used to the transformed view outside the restaurant where she tends bar in Fort Myers Beach: the concrete slabs where bustling businesses once stood, the bald fishing pier pilings, the elevator shaft that is the only, eerie remnant of a two-story shop.

What she cannot get used to is how her friends have scattered, their workplaces gone, their homes beyond repair or rents now out of reach.

“We’d just sit on the beach and talk about our day,” she said, reminiscing about life before Sept. 28, 2022. “The beach was like everybody’s couch.”

It has been a year since Hurricane Ian roared across Fort Myers Beach, submerging the barrier island town under nearly 14 feet of storm surge that destroyed or damaged virtually all of its 3,200 buildings. The ferocious storm, which killed 150 people in Florida, most of them by drowning, ravaged communities along the state’s Gulf Coast, none worse than Fort Myers Beach.

The town’s recovery has been uneven. For every reoccupied home and business, there are others lingering in post-storm devastation, leaving neighborhoods in a sort of suspended animation and Ms. Hill and her fellow residents wondering: What kind of Fort Myers Beach will re-emerge? And who will get to call it home?

“What do we want to be now?” asked Anita Cereceda, the town’s first mayor after it incorporated in 1995. Now the chairwoman of an advisory board that reviews development plans, she wants the town to hold steady on existing rules but says she is seeing policymakers “wiggle.”

“We’d just sit on the beach and talk about our day,” said Melissa Hill, reminiscing about life before Ian.Credit…Zack Wittman for The New York Times

For other waterfront communities in Florida that have taken direct hits from hurricanes past, it is a familiar story. A storm rips through, nearly leveling the place. Residents vow to protect the local character. But rebuilding, especially to withstand the next storm, is expensive.

Climate change is also making hurricanes more destructive, creating a steeper financial toll as the cost of home insurance skyrockets, and emphasizing a question that no one in Florida seems ready to seriously contemplate: whether rebuilding should happen at all.

Some people never do return. Hurricane Irma tore through much of the low-income and work force housing in the Florida Keys when it came ashore in 2017. Hurricane Michael wiped out cottages and other older homes when it slammed into Mexico Beach in 2018.

In the aftermath of those hurricanes have risen big, boxy homes on stilts, with sturdy materials that adhere to more stringent building codes. Such construction is more resistant to powerful winds and storm surge but has also turned beachfronts into mostly affluent places, with an upscale sameness.

For Fort Myers Beach, that could mean losing the unpolished charm that gave it an everyman appeal.

Unlike its wealthier neighbors — Naples to the south, Sanibel Island to the north — Fort Myers Beach was known for its low-slung cottages and haphazard development, allowing teachers and waiters to live next door to retired chief executives. Before Hurricane Ian, the town was home to the Gulf of Mexico’s largest shrimping fleet, its commercial fishermen helping to give the place a down-to-earth feel.

Ian destroyed or damaged virtually all of the town’s 3,200 buildings.Credit…Zack Wittman for The New York Times
A fishing boat washed ashore from Ian was still beached on mangroves a year later.Credit…Zack Wittman for The New York Times

Since Ian, property sales have accelerated: From January to August, 159 single-family homes were sold in Fort Myers Beach, compared with 144 during the same period in 2021, said Denny Grimes, who has sold residential real estate in the area for 40 years.

“The market was starting to slow before Ian,” he said. Now, though, “there’s a waiting list for people all over the country that want to step in.”

Among those who left after Ian was Kathleen Finderson, who moved to the mainland.

“I feel it cannot remain the same,” she said of Fort Myers Beach’s character. Plus, at 76, she and her husband, who is 80, “don’t have five years to wait for that community to come back.”

Seventy-three percent of the town’s year-round residents were 55 or older. Many lived in condominiums that have exhausted their funds to rebuild and are struggling to reopen.

“I came back to absolutely nothing,” said Sue Haynes, sitting outside an R.V. parked on the lot where her duplex stood.

Before the hurricane, she and her 83-year-old mother lived on the first floor and rented the second floor to vacationers. Physically limited from a stroke, Ms. Haynes has been living in the R.V. for months and running through her savings as she does everything possible to rebuild.

Hurricane Ian, which killed 150 people, most of them by drowning, ravaged communities along Florida’s Gulf Coast, none worse than Fort Myers Beach.Credit…Zack Wittman for The New York Times

Homeowners say they have faced inadequate insurance payouts and long waits for permits, contractors and supplies. Under the National Flood Insurance Program, any improvements that exceed 50 percent of a structure’s market value require bringing the entire structure into full compliance with current flood regulations.

“It’s not a place where you’re going to have the average family come and buy a house,” Mayor Dan Allers said. “Unless you were here before the storm, it’s going to be very difficult.”

In the days after Ian hit, local officials in Southwest Florida consulted with Mexico Beach, eager to learn what had worked in that Panhandle town’s recovery from Hurricane Michael. Among the recommendations from Douglas Baber, who served as the city administrator in Mexico Beach from 2021 until July, was to give property owners a fast-track to rebuild if they agreed not to increase the square footage they had before the storm.

Homes under construction in Fort Myers Beach on Tuesday.Credit…Zack Wittman for The New York Times
A crew replanted native palm trees in Fort Myers Beach.Credit…Zack Wittman for The New York Times

Mexico Beach residents fought to keep their small-town charm, he said. But some changes have been inevitable, including bigger developments from investors and new residents.

“The Forgotten Coast is what they were called,” he said. “And they were found.”

Development is also coming to Fort Myers Beach. Earlier this month, the nearly century-old Red Coconut R.V. Park sold for $52 million to a developer known for building luxury residences. London Bay, developer of the nearby Ritz-Carlton Residences, Estero Bay, purchased a former restaurant. The site of the Carousel Inn, built in the 1960s, will now turn into a condo complex, with units starting at $4.1 million.

Moss Marina, a boatyard, wants to transform into a 400-room hotel complex with retail shops and restaurants. Ben Freeland, the owner, whose family has been in town since the 1960s, said the town now had a chance to correct longstanding issues like having rental rooms scattered in residential neighborhoods rather than in concentrated districts.

“This island has been remade for hundreds of years,” he said. “This is just another reshape.”

Still, it is a lot to take in for a town that incorporated in part to protest the county’s pro-development approach, which led to the approval of Fort Myers Beach’s first high-rise, a 12-story resort. The founders of the town said back then that they wanted to preserve an eclectic, family-oriented environment, limiting building height and density.

A newly formed citizens’ group, Let’s Go FMB, hopes to give people more of a say in the town’s future. The Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce estimates that at least half of small business owners, who dominate the beach, plan to rebuild.

Tyler Lukesic is among those determined to stay. He had worked for Heavenly Biscuit, famous for its cinnamon rolls, for more than a decade. After Ian leveled the multihued, converted cottage, Mr. Lukesic bought out the business and operates it out of a food truck parked on the lot.

Patrons line up every morning, just as before.

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

Lights were still sparse as the sun set in Fort Myers Beach on Tuesday.Credit…Zack Wittman for The New York Times

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