Nearly six months since Hurricane Ian made landfall in Southwest Florida, Lee County Chairman Brian Hamman presented the county’s progress and a plan for long-term restoration at a Real Estate Investment Society luncheon earlier this week in Fort Myers.
“What that process looks like is, for the first six months, it was about responding to the emergency,” Hamman said. “[It was] emergency rescuing in the immediate aftermath of the storm, restoring services to people and then now, it’s just helping everybody get back to functional.”
For the next six months, the focus will continue to be returning the county and its residents back to operational, he said. Then priorities will shift to long-term restoration.
“We really will work to restore everything back to the way it was before the storm and possibly even better because now we’ll have new codes and new resiliency measures,” Hamman said.
The Category 4 storm, with its 155 mph winds, was the fifth largest storm in U.S. history. Lee County’s initial damage assessment was estimated at $7.3 billion.
“I was born and raised here,” Hamman said. “It’s the storm they always told us ever since I was a kid is going to happen but never had happened. And it finally did.”
This storm had three times the amount of debris collected following Hurricane Irma in 2017. Ian’s devastation left 132,327 residents without housing.
“[The Federal Emergency Management Agency] has done some things very well, but there’s one thing they have not done real well and that’s the housing mission,” Hamman said.
The housing mission is going to stretch for the next three to five years, he said. There are numerous housing programs available to residents, from the Blue Roof program to different FEMA programs.
“They are working on the temporary shelter, which could last the next 24 months,” Hamman said. “They are working on rental assistance programs and they’re also doing what’s called direct lease. So, they’ll take maybe an apartment building or a place that’s got a lot of rentals, they’ll repair the damage that was done for the landlord, then start leasing it out to people who need the housing with FEMA assistance.”
As for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a Community Development Block Grant in the amount of $1.1 billion was awarded to the county Wednesday for long-term recovery.
“That’s going to take a lot to just figure out how to use that money appropriately,” Hamman said. “So, we will have to step up and actually figure out how to administer that program.”
There are 344 residents in temporary housing, with more than 22,000 approved for rental assistance. Along with housing, issues with the county’s traffic and transportation were exacerbated after the storm.
“We were already in such a fast-growing county and the roads were already clogged up, but now we’re in a position where the storm severed a lot of the communications to our traffic signals,” Hamman said. “The traffic signals are still messed up, a lot of them are crooked and damaged and a lot of that has to do with the bureaucracy that comes with trying to respond to a storm.”
The county has made significant progress in returning traffic signals to working order and repairing road signs, Hamman said. It also seeks to be better prepared with utilities after the storm caused four water main breaks, leaving homes and hospitals without water.
“We are working on what’s called a hazard mitigation grant program. That’ll be another maybe half billion dollars that will come from the federal government,” Hamman said. “We geared a lot of our grant dollars toward making our utilities more resilient, including the lift stations to make sure that, again, everything related to that nutrient and sewage overflows and things like that is handled better in future storms.”
As for county parks, 114 sustained damage, with 35 of the 47 miles of the county’s impacted shoreline experiencing major erosion.
FEMA recently committed to sending 11 more inspectors to the area to ramp up inspections so facilities can reopen, Hamman said.
The county has received $26.8 million from FEMA and insurance companies, while having open purchase orders of $224.5 million. To date, the county has spent nearly $60 million in expenses related to Hurricane Ian.
Because of the damage, Hamman projects the county will see $35 million less in collections on tourist development tax this year. “We have a really nice reserve in that fund, so we’ll be able to handle this year, but we need to get back to functional. We need to get back to being able to accept visitors as soon as possible, so that that way we don’t take that hit too many years in a row.”
He anticipates the county will learn from this storm and build back better.
“We just got whacked by the fifth biggest hurricane in the United States history and here we are six months later,” Hamman said. “The county feels pretty normal other than a few crooked street signs and stop lights. Our people are back to work, our kids are back in school, our businesses are doing good business. We feel pretty normal. There’s a lot of traffic on the roads, but we can’t forget the folks who are on the islands who still have a long way to recovery. And we can’t forget that there’s a lot of work to do to get back to full restoration.”