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Hurricane Ian 1 year later: Fort Myers tries to come back to life

Thousands of structures in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, await reconstruction after the floodwaters wiped them out.
Hurricane Ian 1 year later: Fort Myers tries to come back to life
Posted at 11:40 AM, Sep 28, 2023

It's been one year since Hurricane Ian made landfall in Fort Myers, Florida.

The popular tourist destination was left in ruins after the hurricane came ashore.

Those communities that were hit hardest are still trying to rebuild and return their once-idyllic city to its former self.

But the process has been slow, and Fort Myers Beach still has thousands of buildings waiting to be rebuilt.

When the high water came in, it wiped everything out, leaving behind empty ghost buildings. Only 29% of the island's hotel rooms have reopened.

However, amid the challenges, there's a glimmer of hope at a pizza joint. The owner, Carlos Chavez, lost two other buildings but managed to salvage Bella Mozzarella. He shares that even after a year, the business is still struggling to stay afloat.

The customers are slowly returning to Bella Mozzarella.

“It was horrible; we never expected that it was going to be this bad,” said Chavez.

Chavez makes the pizzas himself, but there’s a lot less to make now. He's just glad to be open.

Most of the restaurants, hotels and stores surrounding his place on Fort Myers Beach are still empty shells.

“The tourism is not here because there are no places for them to stay,” said Chavez.

There’s some construction, but not much, and time is running out for owners and residents to clean up or demolish what’s left of their homes and businesses. The deadline is next month.

Everything changed one year ago as one of the strongest hurricanes in U.S. history took aim at this small beach town.

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Hurricane Ian reached Category 5 status, with sustained winds of more than 157 miles per hour, and dropped to Category 4 just before making landfall, but it didn't make much difference.

The storm surged 10 to 15 feet, quickly filling the town; the small buildings on the island didn’t have a chance.

Hurricane Ian killed 156 people, most of them dying in the storm surge.

The damage was overwhelming. The buildings, large boats, stores and restaurants were all destroyed.

Ian caused almost $113 billion in damages, making it the third-costliest hurricane in U.S. history and the most expensive ever in Florida.

A Scripps News team found themselves caught in the surge, but luck was on their side as the crew of a sea trek spotted them and came to their aid.

They sought refuge from the storm on a ship led by Captain Robbie Donze, with his team, Matt and Ryan, skillfully navigating and managing to keep the ship steady.

As the storm raged on, the sea trek eventually got stuck in the mangroves, providing a safe haven.

Donze spent eight months fixing the sea trek, and there were many times he didn’t think he’d finish it.

“This was a sensory overload. My house is getting washed away. My Jeeps were washed away. My grandma’s down there, getting washed away. The boat's in the woods — it's hard to imagine us getting back for red snapper season, our biggest moneymaker of the year," said Donze. 

Downtown, Chavez is waiting for the tourism rush. Right now, the lunch rush is keeping him afloat.

“It’s going to take years to be able to have the kind of business we used to have — at least three years,” said Chavez. 

Which is as long as it is expected to take to rebuild many of the tourist attractions on Fort Myers Beach.

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