Sunday marks three months since Hurricane Irma’s Sept. 10 landfall at Marco Island as a powerful Category 3 storm, so it’s a good time to reflect on progress toward recovery.
For many residents, the measuring stick was tree stumps, limbs and branches piled up curbside, with minimal or no damage to their homes. With debris gone, recovery may seem like a fait accompli.
But it’s not.
One visible sign of an ongoing recovery is housing. Reports from severely stricken Everglades City show residents still working toward settlements with insurance companies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Bonita Springs council members were reminded days ago that hundreds of Lee residents remain displaced. Travelers going through Southwest Florida International Airport get a bird’s-eye view of how plentiful blue tarps are on rooftops across the region. Some who sustained structural damage say they face months, even more than a year, before a contractor is on site to restore their home.
Our venues aren’t the same. Baker Museum at the Artis--Naples campus is closed for tourist season due to water infiltration. Hollywood 20 movie theaters aren’t open. Part of the Irma-damaged Naples Pier is closed; fishing there is off-limits this season.
Visitor numbers for September and October show Collier County’s backbone tourism industry was hurt, which in turn affects the spending power of an army of hospitality employees. Our area typically draws visitors from elsewhere in Florida, yet residents in about 50 of the 67 counties were hit by Irma as it made an unprecedented march up the peninsula.
Bill comes due
The biggest reminder that recovery isn’t a fait accompli will occur when the bill comes due.
Lengthy power outages were the first major complaint post-Irma, renewing the decades-old debate of whether to put electrical lines underground to protect them from high winds. Dan Summers, director of Collier’s Emergency Services Bureau, recently told county commissioners he’d had nightmare experiences in North Carolina when water got into underground lines. The Florida Public Service Commission is collecting data from dozens of power companies statewide in advance of an April meeting to look at ways to reduce damage to the power grid. Marco Councilman Victor Rios has touted safety benefits of underground lines on the island. Marco Vice Mayor Charlette Roman noted per-mile figures of $400,000 a decade ago and said costs now would be “staggering.” If Irma wasn’t a bad enough hurricane to settle this debate, we hope we never see a storm that will.
Other common concerns post-Irma were a lack of generators to power sewage lift stations and flooding. A Collier staff memo prepared for Tuesday’s commission meeting lists a need to raise unbudgeted amounts of $80 million for stormwater capital projects and $25 million for hurricane resilience.
Local governments have borne substantial costs for storm recovery, primarily for debris removal. Bonita Springs, for example, faces $16.8 million in Irma costs while the city’s entire 2017-18 budget is about $32 million, which had included $6 million for Irma damage. So it’s understandable why Bonita officials were pleased with recent communications that insurance and federal reimbursement would be forthcoming expeditiously.
Local agencies aren’t yet sure how much your local tax dollars will have to cover, compared with what insurance or FEMA will reimburse. Collier’s school district, for example, sustained about $8 million total damages to dozens of buildings. It won’t know for months what it will receive from insurance or the federal government, a spokesman said, adding the district is confident most will be reimbursed.
So yes, three months later, recovery is significant. By no means is it a fait accompli.
Southwest Florida communities reflect on their needs after Hurricane Irma. Katie Klann/Naples Daily News