Gulf of Mexico
Post Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers. Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel

FL - Returning to Fort Myers Beach Just 5 Months After Hurricane Ian

The category 5 storm was the costliest hurricane in Florida history, causing $112.9 billion in damage and 66 direct deaths. Many residents cut their losses and left, but for those who remain, recovery is slow and ongoing.

(TNS) — “I want to know, have you ever seen the rain?” went the well-known Creedence Clearwater Revival refrain, sung by a local guitarist perched on his stool inside MudBugs Cajun Kitchen on Sanibel Island, Florida.

The island saw more than its fair share of rain during Hurricane Ian, which inundated the island with 12 feet of storm surge and flooded some homes up to the roofs. The storm has become a fact of life and a collective lived experience for everyone in this area, the elephant in the room that nobody can stop talking about.

After all, it was the costliest hurricane in Florida history, blamed for $112.9 billion in damage and 66 direct deaths, according to a National Hurricane Center report. Many Lee County residents cut their losses and left the area, but the real theme of human resilience comes through in those who chose to stay and rebuild at whatever cost.

For a few days in late February and early March, I stayed at Latitude 26 Waterfront Resort, just across the bridge facing the bay near Fort Myers Beach. Five months after the storm, it was hard to stomach the remaining signs of devastation, but it was remarkable to see the region returning to life with some bars, restaurants and shops again bustling with business.

I was inspired by leaders like Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith, who gave out her personal phone number amid the storm and celebrated the relighting of the island’s iconic lighthouse five months later. Jacki Liszak, the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce president, lost her hotel, the Sea Gypsy Inn, gift shop, chamber of commerce building and dozens of vacation rental properties — yet spent countless hours dedicated to helping area businesses bounce back.

When describing the experience of vacationing in Lee County less than a full year after a near Category 5 storm struck, it’s hard not to focus on the devastation that still exists: boats forcefully wedged into mangroves, beachfront hotels that were leveled and massive piles of debris that still remain.

While beachfront accommodations are a little harder to come by, the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau has tallied nearly 10,000 guests rooms open for guests. There are places for people to stay and things to do, but marketing after Ian has proven to be a delicate balance.

“It is my job to say, ‘The sky is blue, the water is warm and the sand is soft.’ But if we’re not truthful with people when they come, and their experience is bad, that’s a poor reflection on our dedication to them,” said Tamara Pigott, the bureau’s executive director. “We try to be very truthful with people and honest about what’s going on.”

Still, tourists can embark on sunset tiki tours or pirate cruises, get up-close with wildlife at Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve or rent a personal watercraft for the day. There are plenty of places to dine, drink and be merry, even amid the tireless recovery effort. Visit Fort Myers has an entire section of its website dedicated to sharing what’s open and good news on the long journey to a full recovery.

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