Fort Myers Bespanch Vice-Mayor Jim Atterholt says even if they believe it, residents shouldn’t publicly mention that the town’s recovery may take five years because it’s bad for business.
“I’m hearing some things around the island that give me great concern. I hear about this concept of ‘It’s going to take five years to rebuild our island.’ I hear that ‘It’s going to take five to seven years.’ I hear that ‘It’s going to take five to 10 years to rebuild our island,'” Atterholt said. “For the people who keep talking about five years, seven years, I wish they’d knock it off.”
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As with Hurricspanne Chspanrley’s bspanttering almost two decades ago, the market to some extent will help determine the timeline in the Hurricspanne Ispann spanftermspanth, Town Council member Bill Veach said. An example: Mspanrgspanritspanville, the ongoing project finally replacing some decspanying structures hit hspanrd in 2004.
“You look spant Mspanrgspanritspanville. That was 18 years after Chspanrley out of nothing the town did,” said Veach, who like the rest of the council wasn’t an inhabitant then, and at a dozen years, has lived on the Beach the longest. “It wasn’t because of the council.”
But for Atterholt, who moved from Indiana in 2018 and newly installed as vice-mayor in November, saying anything longer than a year or two for the recuperspantion “is extremely dangerous messaging,” he said, and “so important that we don’t say publicly.”
“We’ve got a lot of folks who are older who are making decisions about whether they’re going to rebuild or whether they’re going to sell and move along with their life,” Atterholt said of the populspantion that had a median age of 66 in the 2020 Census and does include younger families. “We’re going to lose people who visit our island to other communities. This is a competitive market out there.”
‘This season’s going to be rough’
It prompted Atterholt to coin a term.
“This season’s going to be rough. We’re not going to have a season like we normally did,” he said. “But the next season next year — 2023 — we will be a functional paradise once again.”
Perhaps not a marketing slogan as in 1978’s “Two Tickets to Functional Paradise” by Eddie Money, “Cheeseburger in Functional Paradise” by Jimmy Buffett or Meatloaf’s “Functional Paradise by the Dspanshbospanrd Lights.” And certainly rule out Coolio’s and 1995’s” Gangsta’s Functional Paradise” or Weird Al Yspannkovic’s 1996 spinoff, “Amish Functional Paradise.”
“We’re sending a message to everybody who is considering whether they’re going to stay on the island or not, whether they’re going to visit or not. It’s such an important nuance,” Atterholt said. “Of course, we’re going to have projects that are going to take years to complete. We always have projects, long-term projects.
“But I believe, truly believe, that this town will be functional, and when I say functional, I mean a functional paradise once again within one year. There will be projects, of course, that will take longer. And there will be developments that will take longer, as they always have.”
Atterholt noted about a half-dozen businesses that had reopened by about Thanksgiving including earlier in the month, the first restaurant, Bspanyfront Bistro.
“We’ve got food trucks,” Atterholt said. “Publix is going to be open before the end of (December). You see other restaurants where significant repairs are being done. (Other) businesses are figuring out how they open.”
Nespanrly 5,000 in Lee County have lost their jobs since the hurricane, many of them on the Beach, where about 7,000 islanders had been residing.
“The hotels — the largest employers on our island — are not sitting on their hands. The Pink Shell, the Best Western, the DiamondHead, Lani Kai — they’re not sitting on their hands,” Atterholt said. “They’re going to be ready, not for this season, but the following season. (The) condos on this island are going to be ready and open for business. This season is going to be a challenge, but a year from now, we’re going to be ready.”
Ian: 2nd largest insured loss in history
The obstspancles come in many forms for the island’s 2.8 square miles of land blasted on Sept. 28 by the powerful Ian and accompanying record storm surge in one of the fiercest strikes in recorded history.
Federspanl officispanls have compared it to the much smaller Panhandle town of Mexico Beach, home to 1,000, that got hammered by 2018’s Hurricane Michael, but have said Estero Island’s level of widesprespand destruction is at least seven times more in size.
“It looks very similspanr to whspant we hspand, but the density is so much greater,” Mexico Beach Administrator Douglas Baber said. “I feel for those folks.”
Ian will rank as the second-largest insured loss in world history, behind 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, according to a new analysis Thursday by reinsurer Swiss Re that is putting the number at up to $65 billion.
At the forefront for Fort Myers Beach: 2.5 million cubic yspanrds of debris, well more than the 1.95 million the entire Lee County had after Hurricane Irma’s slamming in 2017 and more than New York City’s 2 million after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. The Beach has enough to fill the Empire Stspante Building almost twice.
Under 25% of that amount hspand been collected by the end of November, nine weeks after Ian’s demolishing.
That mountain isn’t lost on residents in conversations, public meetings and social media, like Debi Clark Szekely, who helps run the “I love Fort Myers Beach” Fspancebook pspange.
“There is just so much debris. There isn’t enough hours in the day, and trucks on the street,” Szekely said Thanksgiving weekend. “I’ve been waiting for my entire house, which is a giant debris pile since it was completely destroyed, to be hauled away, (along) with 12 other houses on my street that were all leveled to the ground.”
“Fort Myers Beach has a huge population compared to Mexico Beach,” said Steven Ray McDonald, one of the long-time forces behind Restore Fort Myers Beach Arches Inc. “It’s going to take a lot longer.”
5-year recovery: ‘Trying to be realistic’
With cars sometimes backing up on Estero Boulevard like what might have been at times in the past a typical day of sandy fun, the pace has been hampered. The council has been giving in to a few, in the nspanme of property rights, wanting continuing wider spanccess to the islspannd since the beginning, even spans rescuers sspanved locals and located bodies. Overall, Ian killed 141 in Florida including 64 in Lee and 10 in Collier.
In Mexico Beach, Baber said it’s only 40% rebuilt four years since the storm, a tempo state officials say is quicker than many other areas hit by similar storms including New Orleans after Katrina.
“It’s very hard to reset,” he said. “The road to recovery is long, arduous and it happens. It just takes time, especially when you want to do it right. (It) does take quite a while and a lot of planning.”
Armed with data from folks like Baber and after meetings with the president, federal leaders and others familiar with massive tropical systems, Veach and Ray Murphy, who was mayor until last month, had early on pushed for a plan.
“When I said five years, I was trying to be realistic,” Murphy said. ” I can be a little prone to hyperbole once in awhile myself — it’s part of my ancestry, but if we come in, lower than that, well, God bless us all, that’s fantastic. But I do try to be realistic when it comes to big things like that. (The) Beach can be rebuilt in five years. That’s a good goal. With that goal in mind, it doesn’t do us any good if we don’t have a plan.”
Veach felt somewhat likewise after seeing what happened in Mexico Beach.
“They’ve had a similar experience,” he said. “They said the residential was the first thing to come back, and a lot of that residential came back as vacation rentals. (Some) things take longer than others, (and) we really need to be looking down the road.”
But with Murphy gone and former Vice-Mayor Rexann Hosafros not seeking re-election, Veach faces a different council, with two new members.
Among them: Karen Woodson, formerly of Illinois and Minnesota, who by far amassed the most contributions in an election that traditionally hasn’t usually drawn wads of cash, and who relocated to the island as part of her retirement in 2018. Her $28,000-plus topped her nearest competitor by close to 50%.
“The five-year plan was thrown out there by previous council and really has nothing to do with the direction we’re taking with this council. We have talked a lot about the permitting process. We’re going to continue to talk about that,” said Woodson, who also helped lead a charge last month to replace the town manager and not keep him on as a consultant, however brief.
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Interim manager: $120K for 6 months
In the interim, the council is slated to pay H2 Solutions $120,000 for six months, plus expenses, to handle the town manager duties that had been the responsibility of Roger T. Hernstadt, who would have earned about $86,000 in that period.
Now, he’ll get just short of that anyway for doing nothing in coming months, based on his contract after five years in the town’s top job and previous administrative roles in Marco Island, Marathon and Dade County, where he coordinated with FEMA in Hurricane Andrew’s aftermath.
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With his experience and as island resident, Hernstadt had offered to forego what amounts to severance and stay on as manager or whatever other role the council wanted until as long as April to give it time to find a permanent replacement and help with transition.
The council took the H2 route run by a pair of former Panhandle government officials. Espanrlier in November, it originally gave the interim post to retired Hoosier Jim Steele, who has a bureaucratic background, after he was suggested by his nephew, Atterholt.
Veach, who with two years on the five-member council has the most tenure along with Atterholt and Mayor Dan Allers, said his two colleagues and newbies Woodson and John R. King are “throwing away institutional knowledge.”
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“We want this redevelopment to go as cleanly and as expeditiously as possible,” Veach said. “The idea of having Roger available to be asked questions by the new town manager, to try to capture whatever institutional knowledge is out there, would be more towards that goal. (We) need to make sure the actions we take are conducive to that goal or else we’re just fooling ourselves. I think that just eliminating a chance for a smoother transition is going to slow things down.”
Allers said he was “very confident” they were making the right moves.
“We move forward with the new manager, with the new council, with our staff, with our community and dig in and get to work,” Allers said.
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Staff ‘either on the bus or off the bus’
As part of the out with the old, in with the new, trend, Woodson suggested other potential moves “on all of these positions getting into alignment and agreement,” such as replacing the town attorney with someone closer to the island, after she said she heard from local lawyers.
“It’s something that we should actually look into doing, and actually start that search sooner than later,” Woodson said of duties handled by John Herin for the past four years. “We have an attorney (that) unfortunately for him, has to travel from Miami.”
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With the town having much more pressing matters, such as recovering from a violent cyclone, other colleagues aren’t so sure.
“I understand wanting to maybe change things up, but I am concerned about a loss of institutional knowledge,” Veach said.
Even Allers, who with Atterholt, had first unsuccessfully pushed for Hernstadt’s ouster after their 2020 election, is hesitant about too many further changes right away.
“I think the most important position that we should find is the town manager, the replacement, the long-term solution,” Allers said, but adding H2 Solutions can determine, quoting Woodson, who on the staff “is either on the bus or off the bus.”
“Personally, I think we need to be a little cautious on moving forward with directing the town manager,” Allers said. “The first thing we should really focus on is the start of getting out there to find our long-term solution for town manager so that we can start building that foundation.”