Naples City Council unanimously extended its local state of emergency for Hurricane Ian on Friday another seven days, the maximum time allowed by Florida statutes. The original declaration made on Tuesday expired after 72 hours.
“We’re in a tough situation and I need to start being very direct and very frank about the conditions here on the ground,” said City Manager Jay Boodheshwar. “Our team of employees have been working 24/7. We have teams of people that did not sleep last night fighting a house fire and dealing with the failing generators.”
Boodheshwar said the city’s systems are offline because of electrical issues. “We’re actively working to get back online,” he said. “The biggest question right now is power. Everything we need to do relies on the power.”
Many in Southwest Florida are still without electrical power since Hurricane Ian made landfall Wednesday on the Gulf Coast causing catastrophic damage, leaving an estimated 2.7 million Floridians in the dark. As of Saturday afternoon, more than 35% of Collier County residents remain without power and more than 60% of Lee County residents and 78% of Charlotte customers have not had power restored.
President Joe Biden approved Gov. Ron DeSantis’s request for a major disaster declaration that authorizes FEMA to provide individual assistance for survivors in 13 Florida counties, including Charlotte, Collier and Lee. It also provides 100% federal funding for debris removal and emergency, life-saving measures for 30 days in these counties.
“It was the perfect storm,” said Penny Taylor, the Collier County commissioner whose district includes the city of Naples where she lives in the Lake Park neighborhood. “As the hurricane slowed down it was moving by us, and as it moved by us was when it was high tide. The winds were from the south-southeast on the back side of the hurricane. What happened was it aligned itself with high tide. It pushed the water from Naples Bay and all the canals and everything into our area and that was the problem. So, not only did you have the storm coming in from the Gulf and the strong winds pushing it, you had that south-southeast flow that really brought the bay water and the Gordon River into at least my area and a lot of other areas—River Park, 10th Street, downtown. It was a mess. Along Gulfshore Boulevard, north of Harbour (Drive), there were cars in the median because they floated.”
Although most of the flooding from the extreme storm surge has subsided now, extensive water damage remains in many coastal homes, businesses and vehicles. Newer homes, usually built to code at higher elevations, generally fared better than older homes, Taylor said. “The elevation issue kind of separated the houses that were not damaged from the ones that are,” she said. “You can’t argue with water. There’s no way.”
Flooding was so significant that Naples had costly damage to buildings inside and out as well as vehicles, pump stations and equipment. Fifth Avenue South, the heart of downtown Naples, saw unimaginable flooding.
“Pretty much every establishment got water inside of it. There’s water damage in the city, businesses and residences alike,” Boodheshwar said. “This is going to take weeks, if not months, to recover from because of the damage that has been caused by the flooding.”
Water was getting close to the control panels at the city’s water treatment plant so it was briefly shut down this week. Flooded homes in low-lying areas are going to have some problems with backups, Boodheshwar said, but the sewer plant is fully operational again. Because electricity is down, the city’s lift stations are being manually vacuumed while crews continue to clear city roads.
“Most of the vegetative debris is out of the way. The big issue is standing water. The reason why we have so much standing water on Gulfshore Boulevard is there’s a lot of sand in our sewer system,” said Boodheshwar, noting that more trucks are coming to suction sand and debris out of the sewer system. “That will allow the water to drain. Remember, we have a gravity-based drain system along the Gulf. Clearing out these lines will allow it to push out into the Gulf of Mexico.”
During the storm, city staff watched the water rise to the top step of City Hall, across from Cambier Park, which was submerged in an estimated four or five feet of water. “We had six feet of water around City Hall. It literally was a moat. We were trapped. We could not get out,” Boodheshwar said.
Park Shore Plaza and The Village Shops on Venetian Bay were among the local retail centers beset by flood waters. “One of our council members had a front-row view of Gulfshore Boulevard filling up and waves crashing not on the beach, on buildings as everything came ashore,” said Boodheshwar, noting that the hurricane definitely was more of a water event for Naples rather than a wind event.
“We had heavy winds. We had a lot of debris but don’t really have roofs ripped off,” he said. “It definitely was a water event, but there was significant wind. The headline was the water.”
The city and county areas west of U.S. 41 had precautionary boil water alerts until Friday, when they were lifted for every area except Gulfshore Boulevard and The Strand at Bay Colony, an enclave in Pelican Bay. The Collier 911 system was down Saturday morning. Until the system is functional again, residents requiring emergency assistance are asked to call 252-9300 or text messages to 911.
The city had to clear up a rumor that made national news Thursday claiming that the historic Naples Pier is gone, Boodheshwar said. While its framework remains, a lot of the wooden structure is gone.
“The pier is substantially damaged, completely unsafe for anyone to be on it and it’s closed for an indefinite period of time,” Boodheshwar said. “There are major structural issues that are going to have to be dealt with but it’s going to need a full assessment before we can even begin thinking about repairs or possible replacement. A good portion of the structure is still there but a couple of the buildings are gone.”
The fishing shelter and deck at the western end of the 1,000-foot city landmark is completely gone and only the pagoda-type roofs and corner supports remain of the concession and restroom buildings in the middle of the pier. Also gone are most of the wooden railings and many of the deck planks. Pilings remain jutting from the Gulf at what has been a favorite destination for sightseers and anglers for more than a century.
The pier, originally built in 1888, will be rebuilt and it won’t be the first time. It also was damaged by hurricanes in 1910, 1926 and 1960 and had to be substantially rebuilt each time. A major reconstruction project in 2015 last rebuilt the pier. Because of inflation and building supply issues, the cost to rebuild the pier today could easily be double what it cost last time.
“The pier alone is going to be a pretty big chunk of money. We have some ballpark figures that we’re anticipating in terms of damage to vehicles, buildings and parks probably around the $20 million mark. We’ll know more once the actual assessments and appraisals start happening,” Boodheshwar said. “We’re not even talking about private homes and private businesses, at this point, which is going to be in the hundreds of millions.”
A lot of sand from Naples’ famous beach ended up on downtown streets so there may be less of the Gulfshore attraction to enjoy for now. “We don’t have a full assessment yet but there was significant erosion,” Boodheshwar said.
“Lowdermilk Park is closed and that’s going to be closed for the foreseeable future. There’s lots of damage to the structures. The pavilion building is completely unsafe for anyone to be there, so that’s going to remain closed. Our beach ends are also closed. Right now, very, very unsafe. The ramps, the walkways, the stairs, they’re destroyed so we can’t have people in these dangerous situations. So, the beach ends, the pier, Lowdermilk Park, they’re all closed.”
Although damage to the Naples Pier and beaches is heartbreaking, it is not the city’s priority at the moment, of course. “Right now, we’re focused on really getting roads cleared and everything safe so we can get traffic moving and get people back to their homes as soon as we can,” Boodheshwar said. “Our priorities are really public safety at this point,” he said.
Important recovery essentials include safe drinking water, traffic control and cleaning up debris. Public employees have had all hands on deck since Tuesday.
“Our city team, these people are super committed and they’re out there. Lots of my employees had extensive damage to their homes and their personal situations but they’re here, they’re working, trying to get the city back together,” Boodheshwar said.
Formerly deputy town manager of Palm Beach on Florida’s east coast, Boodheshwar began his new job in Naples this spring. He recently bought a home in Collier County and his family was getting ready to relocate from West Palm Beach next week. Although Boodheshwar has been temporarily renting a condominium on Third Street, he has been sleeping in his office since Tuesday. “I did get some water intrusion into the condos,” he said. “I can’t stay there anymore. I’m going to be in my office for a while.”
A few days following the catastrophic event, Boodheshwar says the city and region will be experiencing a different phase of emotions now. “This is the time when frustration will start to set in,” he said. “We need to be our better selves. We need to continue supporting each other and we need to take care of our mental health. We need to support each other. This is a community effort. We all have to work together. This is going to take days, weeks and probably months.
“We’re begging you all to be patient. Be kind. We’re going to get through this but the next several days until we get the power restored, it’s going to be hard.”
Boodheshwar remains confident that the community will be able to pull together and get past the catastrophe. In fact, he doesn’t think the record-breaking weather event necessarily will delay the region’s busy season or seasonal residents returning to Collier County.
“We’re not going to encourage people to hang tight at this point. A lot of people are anxious to come and see their properties, in fact, and are wanting to come back into town. We understand that,” he said. “I think by the time season comes around we’ll be on the tail end of getting through this. Obviously, the pier’s not going to be rebuilt by then, but I’m very hopeful that we’re going to get to some level of normalcy.”