Everglades City mayor: ‘We’re moving forward’ one year after Hurricane Irma

The city applied for a grant for approximately $2 million, which, if approved, will help elevate 20 to 25 homes to comply with current building codes.

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In the middle of Everglades City is a house with a bright blue tarp covering all of its roof. It’s one of a handful of tarps that still pockmark the town one year after Hurricane Irma, but it serves as a stark reminder that the storm is still very much in the heart of the historical city and the people who live there.

When Hurricane Irma made landfall on Sept. 10, 2017, a storm surge as high as 10 feet swelled in its wake, putting Everglades City underwater. When the floodwaters finally receded, many residents’ homes were uninhabitable due to mud and mold.

The storm also devastated the city’s infrastructure, leaving hundreds of people without water for days, without power for weeks and inundated by bacteria-laden floodwaters.

More: Hurricane Irma: One year later

More: Hurricane Irma: Timeline told in stories, photos, videos before, during and after the big storm hit

The residents of Everglades City are strong, though, said Mayor Howie Grimm, who assumed office on an interim basis just five days before the storm.

“This is a tough bunch of people. Very resilient,” he said. “And when this is all said and done, we’re going to have a more beautiful town.”

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Making the best of a bad situation

The city recently applied for a grant for approximately $2 million, which, if approved, will help elevate 20 to 25 homes to comply with current building codes; under Florida law, any home or trailer that had damage worth more than 50 percent of the value of the home must be brought up to code.

The city is also planning on replacing its streetlights, all of which were damaged by the floodwaters, Grimm said.

“Instead of these 50- or 60-year-old wires running through the ground, we’ll have solar and LED lights, so it’ll be brighter and safer,” he said. “So we’ll come out of this better. You hate to have to go through it, but when you do, you make the best of a bad situation.”

More: Medical examiner confirms 'storm-related' death in Everglades City

More: Hurricane Irma: Everglades City homes and businesses destroyed

The situation isn’t as bad as it could have been, or as bad as those plaguing other communities struck by natural disasters across the country, Grimm said.

“Compared to some of the other disasters, we’re a whole lot better off,” he said. “I look at what’s going on with the volcanoes (in Hawaii) when the lava goes through a town or when the fires (in California) get done with a whole neighborhood; we had something left to work with; some of them didn’t, so we're blessed.”

That’s what he tries to keep in mind on the days he gets frustrated by the slowness of the recovery efforts; like many cities throughout the state, Everglades City has not received any money yet from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“I’m one of the kind of guys who just gets stuff done and it’s like, you go as fast as you want to, but then you have to hurry up and wait,” Grimm said. “I know there are a lot of things that are happening, but you don’t see it yet.”

More: Utilities add backup power after Hurricane Irma to avoid sewage overflow repeat

More: ‘Down here, life is still a battle’: Dozens of Collier students still homeless from Hurricane Irma

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This is the view on County Road 29 driving into Everglades City in Collier County on Sept. 11, 2017. Katie Klann/ Naples Daily News

Finding hope in the little things

One thing that is noticeable is City Hall's new landscaping, which was donated by Rick Perez Landscaping. It’s things like that that make a world of difference, said longtime City Clerk Dottie Joiner, whose home was destroyed during the storm.

“We go and go and go and go and then just that little simple thing just gives us hope that there’s more coming,” she said.

The same can be said of the Pentacostal church in nearby Chokoloskee. Although the church’s main building survived the storm, everything inside was destroyed, and its teen center next door had to be torn down.

More: Hurricane Irma destroys Everglades City firefighters' homes

More: Everglades City residents still thankful despite hurricane losses

With help from God’s Pit Crew, a Virginia-based disaster relief nonprofit, the church’s main building was restored in December.

“(The church) is really a beacon of hope,” said the Rev. Lynnette Morris. “To see this building restored, it gave hope to people in this community that their businesses would be restored and that their homes would be restored, as well.”

The church is focused on raising funds to rebuild its teen center, now a slab of concrete with a few picnic tables on it. However, if Irma taught the congregation one thing, it’s that the church is much more than just a building.

“We are the church,” Morris said. “This is the building, but we learned that you don’t have to have air conditioning, you don’t have to have electricity; as long as you’ve got Jesus here and you’ve got the people meeting together, that’s all you need for church.”

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‘You don't wait for someone to come in and save you’

It will be years before Everglades City fully recovers from Hurricane Irma, but just like they did immediately after the storm, the people of the city will work together to rebuild the place their families have called home for generations.

“A lot of these people are fourth or fifth generation, and they were here before somebody was here to help them, so you just step in and start helping yourself and helping your neighbors,” Grimm said. “You don’t wait for somebody to come in and save you. So many places you look around and they’re always waiting for somebody to save them; we just go to work.”

More: Three months after Irma, recovery still slow in Everglades City

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They did have help, though — in the span of two months, more than 8,000 volunteers came to the city, bringing food, supplies and, most importantly, a willingness to work.

“I don’t think we can say thank you enough,” Grimm said. “I just want people to know that we appreciate everything that every individual, every church group and every nonprofit did. We really, really thank them for all that they’ve done.”

As Grimm looks to the future with high hopes, he also looks to the past for encouragement. The small city has survived many hurricanes before Irma, including 1960’s Hurricane Donna, which also brought a high storm surge and flooding. None of the previous storms has ever kept the city down, and Irma won’t either.

“Hurricanes are going to happen, they do happen. We live in paradise and that’s part of us living here,” Grimm said. “But we’re a special place and people see that. Everglades City is the jewel of Collier County.”

And with the town’s famed resiliency and just a little bit of elbow grease, that jewel will be shining again sooner rather than later.

Connect with the reporter at lisa.conley@naplesnews.com, on Twitter @LNConley and at facebook.com/LNConleyNDN

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