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Rebuilding Fort Myers Beach: Hurricane Ian prompts debate over island’s future

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 12/8/2022 Susan Glaser, cleveland.com
Scene from Fort Myers Beach; that's the Lani Kai Island Resort in the background. © Susan Glaser/cleveland.com/TNS Scene from Fort Myers Beach; that's the Lani Kai Island Resort in the background.

FORT MYERS BEACH, Florida – Stand on the sand in downtown Fort Myers Beach facing west toward the water and you might be fooled into thinking everything is all right.

“If you’re on the beach, you almost don’t know anything happened,” said Jacki Liszak, executive director of the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce, a former Clevelander and long-time beach resident.

A poinsettia tree is a focal point for visitors to downtown Fort Myers Beach. © Susan Glaser/cleveland.com/TNS A poinsettia tree is a focal point for visitors to downtown Fort Myers Beach.

Turn your head in any direction and the devastation comes into clear view.

Nearly all of the island’s small, wood-framed structures, many of which date back decades, have been wiped out, along with numerous larger buildings.

“Buildings that stood for 100 years – they’re just gone,” said Liszak, whose own small inn, the Sea Gypsy, was razed by the storm.

A staircase is all that's left of the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce office. © Susan Glaser/cleveland.com/TNS A staircase is all that's left of the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce office.

Early reports, however, that the entire 7-mile-long barrier island was destroyed when Hurricane Ian made landfall in late September are not accurate. Mayor Dan Allers estimates that perhaps 50% of the island’s 3,500 structures will be gone when the cleanup is complete.

View of the northern end of Fort Myers Beach as seen from the Matanzas Pass Bridge. © Susan Glaser/cleveland.com/TNS View of the northern end of Fort Myers Beach as seen from the Matanzas Pass Bridge.

Liszak, who moved to Florida after graduating from Mayfield High School in the early 1980s, says Fort Myers Beach has a unique opportunity to consider its future.

“It’s like going back in time,” she said. “We have the rare opportunity to see the island before it was built up. We get to envision what we want the island to look like. Who do we want to be?”

A recovery update

Two months after Hurricane Ian came barreling through Southwest Florida, recovery on Fort Myers Beach is very much a work in progress.

Cleanup continues nearly everywhere – there are still huge piles of debris lining the roadways – but rebuilding has begun, as well.

It’s too early for overnight guests – there are no hotels currently open on the island — but day visitors are already making their way to the beach to support the several restaurants that have reopened. A glorious poinsettia tree erected in Times Square, the center of town that has largely been flattened, is drawing people, as well, bringing hope to both residents and visitors.

A group of Ohio ex-pats hand out free lunches to workers on Fort Myers Beach. © Susan Glaser/cleveland.com/TNS A group of Ohio ex-pats hand out free lunches to workers on Fort Myers Beach.

Even before the hurricane, the future of Fort Myers Beach was an intense topic of debate, as developers eyed the sleepy beachfront community, with property values that lagged tonier communities nearby, including Sanibel and Naples.

Lunch crowd at Wahoo Willie's, which opened last month in downtown Fort Myers Beach. © Susan Glaser/cleveland.com/TNS Lunch crowd at Wahoo Willie's, which opened last month in downtown Fort Myers Beach.

Simple, hard-working, not pretentious – these are words that keep coming up to describe this place and its people.

Margaritaville Beach Resort, under construction on Fort Myers Beach. © Susan Glaser/cleveland.com/TNS Margaritaville Beach Resort, under construction on Fort Myers Beach.

“We all want to maintain the flavor and the funkiness of Fort Myers Beach,” said Liszak, who lost numerous rental properties on the island, as well. “That’s the reason we fell in love with this place. That’s why we’re here.”

She added, “And we’re committed to keeping it that way.”

But rebuilding to contemporary construction standards will not be inexpensive.

Liszak said every small-business owner she’s talked to has said they want to rebuild.

But will they be able to?

One symbol of this new-versus-old debate is the massive Margaritaville Beachfront Resort Fort Myers, under construction across several blocks of downtown on the north end of the island. The resort started construction in mid-2021, with an opening date scheduled for September 2023.

The structure was barely damaged by Ian, said David Cesario, vice president and general manager for the property.

A scene from downtown Fort Myers Beach in early December. © Susan Glaser/cleveland.com/TNS A scene from downtown Fort Myers Beach in early December.

“This building was built to withstand a category 5 storm – and it did,” said Cesario.

The 254-room resort will likely push back its opening date by a month or two but is still expected to open next year.

“It’s more important than ever to open,” said Cesario. “To get people back to work. To get people back down here. You want to see that crowd of people having fun in Fort Myers Beach again.”

Snowbird paradise

Decades before it was incorporated in 1995, Fort Myers Beach was enticing northerners to its sandy paradise. My own grandparents built a small beachfront house here in the 1960s, then moved to one of the island’s first high-rise condo complexes in the 1970s.

The town’s year-round population of about 7,000 swells to more than 50,000 on busy days in March.

The community has been hit by hurricanes before, but never like this. The storm surge from Ian submerged the island for hours, causing massive flooding. Fourteen people died.

Most of the town’s 560-foot-long pier, a community gathering spot, was washed away. Allers said he expects the county will eventually replace the structure, although it may take years.

The city was already planning to redevelop downtown, a task which may be hastened with so much vacant land.

Wahoo Willie’s Tiki Bar and Grill, on Old San Carlos Boulevard downtown, was supposed to open on the very day that Ian hit. It opened six weeks later, in mid-November.

Poinsettias line the entrance to the destroyed Fort Myers Beach Fishing Pier in Southwest Florida. © Susan Glaser/cleveland.com/TNS Poinsettias line the entrance to the destroyed Fort Myers Beach Fishing Pier in Southwest Florida.

“Surprisingly, business has been really good,” said owner Peter Ennis, who has served a combination of workers, displaced residents and curiosity seekers during his first few weeks of operation.

Unlike nearby Sanibel, which has restricted access to the island for the past two months, with only workers and residents allowed, the bridge to Fort Myers Beach is open, and plenty of folks have been coming over to check out Ian’s wrath.

There are challenges upon arrival, however. Parking is extremely limited; a curfew remains in effect, from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m..; and Lee County has closed its oceanfront beaches, due to concerns about debris in the water and sand, plus an ongoing risk from red tide, a harmful algal bloom, in the area.

The city, however, isn’t trying to keep people off the beach, though Allers advised beach walkers to wear shoes. “And I personally wouldn’t go in the water,” he said.

All the hotels on the island remain shuttered, although the Pink Shell Beach Resort announced recently that it is opening a few dozen rooms later this month, to workers and displaced local residents only, starting Dec 19.

It’s unclear how long it will take other properties on the beach to reopen. It’s also unclear, simply by looking at a property, how extensive the damage is.

Owners of the venerable Lani Kai on the beach have vowed to rebuild, as has the DiamondHead Beach Resort.

By this time next year, predicts Liszak, “We should be well on our way to whatever normal is.”

Part of that new normal will include Margaritaville, which is expected to debut in late 2023 with five restaurants and a spa open to the public.

Cesario admits the opening will be much different than initially imagined, as Margaritaville will likely be one of perhaps a handful of resorts operating on the island.

He likened the opening to a kick-off of the community’s comeback, the launching of Fort Myers Beach’s next chapter.

“I think we’re going to be busier than we ever thought we would be,” he said.

Whatever the future of Fort Myers Beach looks like, Cesario said it will be different from the past. “People on Fort Myers Beach have a passion about it not changing,” he said. “It has to be modernized. This proves it.”

**

The Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau maintains an updated list of operating businesses on Fort Myers Beach and elsewhere. For information: visitfortmyers.com

Read more:

What’s next for Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach? Long, slow recovery following devastating Hurricane Ian

Sanibel Island after Ian: Causeway reopens to public Jan. 2, but recovery will take years

While Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach recover, check out these alternative Southwest Florida destinations

With beaches near Fort Myers still closed, head to Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island for sun and sand

Overnighting in old Florida, at Pine Island’s Tarpon Lodge

Exploring downtown Fort Myers, an alternative waterfront destination in Southwest Florida

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit cleveland.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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