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After Hurricane Ian, Fort Myers Beach struggles to become 'a functional paradise'

Six months after Hurricane Ian stormed across Southwest Florida, people in many areas are still struggling to rebuild. Fort Myers Beach was particularly hit hard by the 15-foot storm surge.
Greg Allen/NPR
Six months after Hurricane Ian stormed across Southwest Florida, people in many areas are still struggling to rebuild. Fort Myers Beach was particularly hit hard by the 15-foot storm surge.

FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. — Few communities in the U.S. have seen the level of destruction Hurricane Ian brought to Fort Myers Beach. The town's vice mayor, Jim Atterholt, compares it to the destruction some European cities saw in World War II. Six months after the storm, he and other officials are working in tents and trailers. The town hall was destroyed.

The oldest church on the island, Chapel by the Sea, also now is just ruins. "You can see how the front of the sanctuary was just devastated." But the storm's impact was unpredictable. "On the front of the church," he says, "you see this beautiful pristine stained-glass window that was perfectly untouched."

Like most buildings on Fort Myers Beach, Atterholt's home is unlivable. A 15-foot storm surge swept away many structures and left few undamaged. He says, "The older homes ... were just completely destroyed. But those newer homes that were built more structurally sound ... they fared amazingly well."

Jim Atterholt, vice mayor of Fort Myers Beach, stands in front of Chapel By the Sea. This church was destroyed by Hurricane Ian's 150 mph winds and a wall of water that pummeled the island in September 2022.
/ Greg Allen/NPR
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Greg Allen/NPR
Jim Atterholt, vice mayor of Fort Myers Beach, stands in front of Chapel By the Sea. This church was destroyed by Hurricane Ian's 150 mph winds and a wall of water that pummeled the island in September 2022.

Atterholt is living temporarily in one of those newer homes. In a town that had some 6,000 year-round residents, people here estimate that only a third or less have been able to return since the storm. A few hotels have begun welcoming guests. The beaches are open, although a red tide algae bloom has led to big fish kills. There are food trucks, but few other amenities for visitors.

By next year, Atterholt vows things will be different. He says, "We're going to have what I call a functional paradise once again." He expects hotels and condos will be open and the town will be ready for Spring Break in 2024.

Throughout Southwest Florida, six months after Hurricane Ian, rebuilding is going slowly. At least 149 people were killed in the storm from flooding and 155-mile per hour winds. A powerful storm surge flattened structures in coastal areas, helping make it the third costliest hurricane on record after only Katrina and Harvey.

Fort Myers Beach was one of the hardest hit areas. On the town's streets, huge piles of debris are still everywhere. Many homes, too damaged to be repaired, are waiting to be demolished. But there are signs the town is starting to come back.

Volunteers load free drywall into trucks and SUVs during a recent giveaway at Beach Baptist Church on Fort Myers Beach. Charlie Doster was among those collecting the maximum 25 sheets. "I need probably five times this many."
/ Greg Allen/NPR
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Greg Allen/NPR
Volunteers load free drywall into trucks and SUVs during a recent giveaway at Beach Baptist Church on Fort Myers Beach. Charlie Doster was among those collecting the maximum 25 sheets. "I need probably five times this many."

At Beach Baptist Church on a recent morning, a line of cars snaked down the street for a giveaway of something nearly every homeowner here needs, drywall. Charlie Doster took the maximum available, 25 sheets saying, "I need probably five times this many."

Doster's home was flooded and he's doing the repairs himself. He's staying nearby but estimates it will be at least six months until he's back in his house. He laughs when asked if his insurance helped. "No," he says. "I think we got $700 you know which doesn't go far."

It's a story you hear often. Because most of the damage on Fort Myers Beach came from storm surge, only those with flood insurance received significant insurance payouts. Despite winds over 150 miles per hour, homeowners here have had a harder time with their windstorm claims. Officials here say slow and inadequate insurance payouts are hurting recovery and forcing many long-time residents to sell and leave the island.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is supporting legislation aimed at propping up the state's troubled insurance industry. But he says complaints about how insurance companies handle claims are being investigated. At a recent news conference he said, "Anyone should be held accountable who's not meeting obligations to their folks."

At Beach Baptist Church, Doug Miller has been serving a free breakfast and lunch for residents since the day after the hurricane. He owns a local chain of restaurants and has heard the insurance woes. "I have talked to tens of thousands of people," he says. "And I've talked to two that have had a positive outcome."

Doug Miller grills up free food to give to weary homeowners and workers at Beach Baptist Church on Fort Myers Beach. Six months after Hurricane Ian walloped Southwest Florida, the recovery is slow and uneven.
/ Greg Allen/NPR
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Greg Allen/NPR
Doug Miller grills up free food to give to weary homeowners and workers at Beach Baptist Church on Fort Myers Beach. Six months after Hurricane Ian walloped Southwest Florida, the recovery is slow and uneven.

Many here see it as the end of an era. For generations, Fort Myers Beach catered to middle-income vacationers, many of them from the Midwest. It was Miller says, "the working man's beach, nothing too fancy. A lot of Mom and Pop type businesses." There were million-dollar homes, but it was a community of cottages, not Miami Beach-style condos. He says, "We're the exact opposite of South Beach."

Big changes are underway on Fort Myers Beach. A huge new resort, Margaritaville, was under construction when Ian hit. It's slated to open later this year. At the Pink Shell Beach Resort, cranes tower overhead and jackhammers are tearing up damaged concrete. The resort's owner, Bob Boykin says as terrible and destructive as the hurricane was, it now provides the island with an opportunity to build for the future. "This is a chance to...do probably 40 years of (development)...in what will probably look like four or five years."

One of Boykin's concerns is where he'll find housing for his employees. In the storm, Pink Shell lost two cottages it used for workforce housing. Now, Boykin says, some employees are commuting to the island from homes 30 or 40 miles away. "Everybody is faced with this situation," he says.

On nearby Sanibel Island, a non-profit corporation supported by the city provides nearly 90 workforce homes, some of which were destroyed in the storm. Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith says those homes will be rebuilt and the city is working to add more. She says, "We had an issue before Ian. Now, by Ian it's just magnified to such a degree that we have to...make sure people who want to work and live here can afford to."

Pastor Shawn Critser of Beach Baptist Church operates a forklift moving supplies into his damaged church. With the help of a developer, he hopes his rebuilt church complex will include workforce housing.
/ Greg Allen/NPR
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Greg Allen/NPR
Pastor Shawn Critser of Beach Baptist Church operates a forklift moving supplies into his damaged church. With the help of a developer, he hopes his rebuilt church complex will include workforce housing.

That could be a model for Fort Myers Beach. The town is just beginning discussions about how it can develop more workforce housing. At Beach Baptist Church, all the buildings on the nearly four-acre property are being demolished. Pastor Shawn Critser says with the help of a developer, the rebuilt church complex will include workforce housing. One of his goals is to get more families back on the island.

He says, "Our push for that is that we can get kids into those apartments that then funnel (them) into the school system. We'd really like to see that school come back on the island. But to do that, we're going to have to provide houses for those families to live in."

For residents, elected officials and developers, Hurricane Ian has given them almost a clean slate in deciding what kind of community Fort Myers Beach will be. That worries some long-time residents who for decades fought to keep out big developments and protect the island's old Florida charm. But with the hurricane, Critser says, for better or worse, opposition to redevelopment has melted away. "In a way," he says, "the hurricane has forced us to...stay in your lane, worry about what you got, take care of your stuff. What happens, come what may."

Town officials are working on a new comprehensive plan that will determine what the new version of Fort Myers Beach will be. Vice Mayor Jim Atterholt says the height limit will be raised and new hotels and condo buildings will be taller. "But I don't think it will be like Miami," he says. "I don't think you'll see the skyrises. It will change because everybody's going to have to build up because FEMA requires that now. And that will create a different flavor here because you won't see so many of the old ground level cottages." Buildings will now have to be elevated to protect them from flooding in future storm events.

There are few places to stay on Fort Myers Beach now, but visitors, especially those with long ties to the island, have already begun to return. It's led to complaints from locals about "disaster tourism" and snarled traffic already slowed by debris removal and construction equipment. But for some, it's a chance to get a last look at the island before it changes forever.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Six months after Hurricane Ian hit Southwest Florida, there are many homes that remain untouched. A 15-foot storm surge knocked this house off its foundation on Fort Myers Beach.
/ Greg Allen/NPR
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Greg Allen/NPR
Six months after Hurricane Ian hit Southwest Florida, there are many homes that remain untouched. A 15-foot storm surge knocked this house off its foundation on Fort Myers Beach.

Greg Allen
As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.