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Doug Baber is like a voice from the future when it comes to recovering from Hurricane Ian. He’s the city manager of Mexico Beach, in the Florida Panhandle. He missed Category 5 Hurricane Michael there in 2018, taking the job three years later. Today, he knows the road ahead for Southwest Florida will be a bumpy one and a long one.

“It looks like exactly what happened here, but in a much denser and more populated area,” says Baber, who manages a town that’s just returning to its normal population of more than 1,000 residents. The population fell from 1,000 to 300 at one point. “We had 17 feet of storm surge here, too. Highway 98 was like a dam. It blocked a lot of that storm surge. But both bridges were just blown out. People were trapped from one bridge to another, similar to the way Sanibel was.

“We’re at the four-year mark right now, and we are so far from being done. But we have come so far to get to this point.”

In the third year after Michael devastates Mexico Beach, the area experiences $20 million worth of new construction, a figure projected to rise this year.

“FEMA and the state, we are [grateful] for every dollar we have gotten from them to this point,” Baber says. “We could not be where we are without these governing agencies that have helped us. However, this is a marathon and not a sprint. They have an arduous process they go through to make sure all the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed.”

Wayne Sallade knows the feeling. He teaches emergency management classes at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado, where he retired with his wife—but still serves Charlotte County and greater Southwest Florida with hurricane updates and advice on Facebook during hurricane season.

“When Hurricane Charley hit us, I told people it would take five to 10 years for Punta Gorda to come back,” Sallade says of 2004. “It came back a lot faster than that. We had made substantial recovery by five years. We had a five-year celebration. By 10 years, there were still some holes here. The Punta Gorda Mall, it was a shopping center with an Eckerd’s, a McCrory’s and the theater on the U.S. 41. It got blown to smithereens.”

Baber and Sallade have some advice for Southwest Floridians: Take care of yourselves—and each other.

“Mental health, it becomes a huge issue,” Sallade says. “And I have told just about every person I know. They need to pace themselves. Physically and emotionally.

“This isn’t like cleaning up after a severe windstorm. It’s something that’s going to take years. Sanibel, Captiva, Pine Island, likely will not ever look like they did. A lot of people won’t see a complete recovery for those places until well over a year.”

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