Eight months ago, chef Michael Celura had a restaurant job and moved into a fancy new camper home on Fort Myers Beach. Now, after Hurricane Ian has passed, he lives in his old Infiniti sedan with a 15-year-old long-haired chihuahua named Ginger.
Like hundreds of others, Cellura was left homeless when the Category 5 storm blasted the barrier islands last September with fierce winds and storm surge of up to 15 feet (4 meters). Like many, she struggled with navigating insurance payments, understanding federal and state aid bureaucracy, and simply finding a place to shower.
“Many people like me are displaced. Nowhere to go,” 58-year-old Cellura said during a recent interview next to his car, sitting in a commercial parking lot with other storm survivors from recreational vehicles, a converted school bus, even That too in a shipping container. “There are a lot of homeless people here, a lot of people living in tents, a lot of people struggling.”
With this year’s Atlantic hurricane season officially beginning June 1, recovery is far from complete in hard-hit Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel and Pine Island. Five to nine hurricanes are forming and one to four are developing into major hurricanes with winds in excess of 110 mph (177 kph).
Another weather pattern that could suppress Atlantic storms, experts say, is El Niño warming expected in the Pacific Ocean this year. Yet climate change-induced rapidly warming waters in the Atlantic basin could offset the El Niño effect, scientists say.
There are piles of debris everywhere in southwest Florida. Demolition and construction work is going on in the entire area. Sand-laden trucks rumble along to refill eroded beaches. Empty concrete slabs reveal that buildings, many of them once attractive, decades-old structures that gave the cities their relaxed beach feel, have been washed away or torn down.
Some people, such as Fort Myers Beach resident Jacqueline Velazquez, are living in campers or tents on their property while they wait for lingering insurance checks or construction permits to restore their lives.
“It’s, you know, it’s in the picture of the finger. Your life is never going to be the same,” she said next to her camper, which was provided under a state program. are the ones you lose. It’s just trying to get back to some normalcy.”
According to a comprehensive NOAA report on the storm, Ian has claimed more than 156 lives in the US, most of whom live in Florida. A NOAA report found that in severely affected Lee County – including Fort Myers Beach and other seaside cities – the storm surge killed 36 people and damaged more than 52,000 structures, with more than 19,000 destroyed. or seriously damaged.
Even with state and federal help, the scale of the disaster overwhelmed these small towns that were unprepared to deal with so many problems at once, said Chris Holley, former interim Fort Myers Beach town manager.
“Probably the biggest challenge is the craziness of the debris removal process. We’ll be in this for the next six months,” Holley said. “Permitting is a big, big problem for a small town. The staff couldn’t handle it.
Then there’s the battle with insurance companies and how to get state and federal aid, which runs into the billions of dollars. Robert Burton and his partner Cindy Lewis, both 71 and from Ohio, whose mobile home was damaged by storm surge, lived with friends and family for months, until provided a small apartment through the Federal Emergency Management Agency Went. They can stay there until March 2024, unless they look for a new home.
His mobile home park next to the road to Sanibel is a ghost town, filled with flooded homes that will soon be demolished, many of them with ruined furniture inside, clothes still in closets, The art is still on the walls. There was at least three feet of water inside most homes.
“No one has a home. That park will never be reopened as a residential community,” Lewis said. “So everyone lost.”
The state Office of Insurance Regulation estimated that total insured losses from Ian in Florida were approximately $14 billion, with more than 143,000 claims still open without payment or claims that have been paid but not fully settled as of March 9. Is.
With so many people in limbo, places like the heavily damaged Beach Baptist Church in Fort Myers Beach provide a lifeline, with a food pantry, a hot lunch stand, showers and even laundry facilities for anyone’s use. Pastor Shawn Critser said the church is serving about 1,200 families per month through donated items.
“We’re not doing emergency food anymore. We’re in disaster recovery mode,” Critter said. “We want to see it continue. We want to have a continued presence.
In nearby Sanibel, long-term damage is not quite as extensive, although many businesses are closed as they are being repaired and storm debris is everywhere. Seven local retail stores have moved to a shopping center in mainland Fort Myers in hopes of continuing to operate while they await insurance payments, construction permits, or both before returning to the island.
They call themselves the “Sanibel Seven,” said Rebecca Binkowski, owner of McIntosh Books & Papers, which has been a Sanibel fixture since the 1960s. She said her store did not have flood insurance and that about $100,000 worth of books and merchandise were lost in the storm.
“The truth of the matter is we can get our businesses up and running again, but without hotels to keep people, without our community holding back, it will be difficult to do business,” she said. “You hope it’s still a strong community.”
Still, the feeling among many survivors is one of hope for the future, even if it looks very different.
Celura, who has been living in his car, takes on a new job at the second location of the Nauti Tota restaurant on the mainland. The insurance only paid the outstanding loan amount on his destroyed camper and he was not eligible for FEMA assistance, leaving him with virtually nothing to start with and apartment rents skyrocketing.
But, even after spending 22 years on the island, he has not given up.
“I have faith that things will work out. I am strong. I am a survivor,” he said. “Every day I wake up, it’s another day to just keep going and try to make things better.”