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Drone footage shows the destruction left by Hurricane Irma in the Leawood Lakes and Cape Sable Lakes neighborhoods of Naples. (Video by Rodney White and Michael Zamora)

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Although Hurricane Irma affected the entire state and hit some Southwest Florida communities hard, the giant storm could have been a lot worse, U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney said.

"We really dodged a bullet," Rooney said at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa in Bonita Springs on Friday during a panel discussion about Irma.

"As bad as it is, we really dodged a bullet," he told the dozens in attendance.

Rooney, R-Fla., said the storm at one point was predicted to stay 20 miles off the coast. That could have meant that dreaded storm surge, which much of Southwest Florida was spared, would have led to widespread flooding.

"It would've been a tsunami," he said. "Just a huge disaster."

But because the storm moved inland, Rooney said, the storm surge did not rise as high as originally feared.

Still, the hurricane left its mark.

"It caused damage to some people in Immokalee and Everglades City that's just terribly devastating," said Rooney, of Naples.

On Friday, more than two months after the storm swept through Southwest Florida, the panel discussed lessons learned from the hurricane and best practices for the future. The three panel members also answered questions from the audience.

Joining Rooney on the panel were representatives of the South Florida Water Management District and the Federal Emergency Management Administration. The event was organized by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Speakers Assembly of Southwest Florida and sponsored in part by the Naples Daily News.

Although the storm surge was not as ferocious as forecasters predicted, the storm led to flooding in parts of Bonita Springs where the Imperial River had spilled over its banks just two weeks earlier. 

The best strategy to prevent future flooding is to "make sure that the watershed continues to flow as it did historically," said Frederick Barber III, chairman of the Big Cypress Basin Board for the water district.

In response to a question from the audience, Barber said it would not help to have a reservoir in the Density Reduction Groundwater Resource area, which was created in rural eastern Bonita Springs to limit development and preserve water.

A 1,000-acre, 10-foot deep reservoir would contain only about "4 percent of the water that gets here," Barber said. "So a reservoir isn't the answer. It's trying to get the water to move where it used to move south."

Cleaning and maintaining existing waterways is important, too, he said.

"When you ask a natural river ... to act like a piece of infrastructure, you have to maintain it," Barber said. "It has to be kept clear if you expect it to act like an infrastructure." 

With homes rendered uninhabitable in both Lee and Collier counties due to Irma, one audience member asked about the status of FEMA trailers.

"Our preferred approach would be to find an apartment in the general area to put somebody in, as opposed to try to bring a temporary trailer," said Col. Terence Hermans, FEMA's deputy director of Branch IV in Florida, which covers 10 counties, including Lee and Collier.

As of Tuesday, 85 families in Collier were eligible for FEMA housing and 22 of those had been situated in apartments and trailers.

Usually, FEMA will pay up to fair market value in an area to put a displaced family into an apartment, Hermans said.

In Lee and Collier, the agency received the OK from headquarters to go to 200 percent of fair market value to increase the pool of apartments available to house residents, he said.

"I will tell you the thing that FEMA does best is write checks," Hermans said. "So that's an apartment for us."

Trailers, on the other hand, can take a long time to set up, he said.

"So we're trying to help ourselves and help the residents of Collier and Lee by opening up the entire population of apartments so we can get them in there," Hermans said. "As opposed to try to force or fit into some sort of mobile home."

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