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Fort Myers Beach post Irma: Brusied but not broken

By Staff | Sep 11, 2017

Sunday night, the wind howled and the rain pounded.

Monday morning, a new sound filled the beach air: the constant hum of generators.

Hurricane Irma was predicted to hit Lee County as a category 4 storm, but first passed through Marco Island, which weakened the storm to a category 2.

Lee County issued a mandatory evacuation for the barrier islands Friday, and a majority of Fort Myers Beach residents fled the low-lying island with no idea if they would have a home to come back to after the storm.

“It was terrifying,” said Mitch Pacyna, a resident of Hercules Drive. “It was the first time I was every worried about a storm.”

Beach residents and business owners were allowed to return to the island with their re-entry passes Monday, with town staff regulating the return to be sure only those allowed to return were let on the island.

In Pacyna’s 22 years living in Florida, it was the first hurricane he ever evacuated for, he said. His beach cottage is on stilts, but with the storm surge predicted to bring in 10 to 15 feet of water, he knew he couldn’t stick it out at home. He shuttered his home for the first time ever and escaped to a friend’s home in Cape Coral to wait out the storm.

“Coming back was a breeze,” Pacyna said – it was a fear of many islanders that returning would be cumbersome. “I just held up my pass and they waved me through.”

Much of the south end and some of mid-island had power restored Tuesday morning, but the rest of the island could be waiting for a while before their lights come back on. Florida Power and Light predicted it could take until Sept. 22 to restore power to its western region customers, which includes several counties, but it could not say specifically when Fort Myers Beach would be back at full power. However, more and more streets had power restored Tuesday as the day progressed.

Vice Mayor Tracey Gore evacuated the island, and she said as soon as Mayor Dennis Boback and Town Manager Roger Hernstadt had toured the island with law enforcement, they gave the all-clear to let people back on to assess their properties.

“They did a good job letting people back in,” she said.

Town Hall was slated to re-open Wednesday to help people get permits and begin to rebuild what had been damaged.

Assessing the damage

Fort Myers Beach was lucky: the path of the storm did not place the island in the center, instead the island caught the western brunt of the hurricane. Monday morning revealed downed power lines, extensive damage to trees and landscaping, and a few homes with roofs lost or other ruination. No major storm surge occurred. As a whole, the island was lucky, Gore said. Pacyna’s home, right across the street from a beach access, only saw a few inches of water on the ground level.

Pacyna is well-known on the island for his get-togethers and parties in the den beneath his stilted home. He said as long as he can get everything back together this weekend, he’s throwing a “Thank God we have a home” party.

Not everyone escaped major building damage.

San Carlos Island residents also faced some hard hits. Several mobile homes lost roofs as the wind peeled back metal paneling. The island’s canals had seawall failure.

Charlie Whitehead started cleaning up his home on Emily Lane Monday to discover his dock had shifted, pulling away his back porch. A sea grape tree his daughters used to climb had toppled onto the dock too. His seawall had caved in, the canal eroding away one of the pilings that help to hold up his home. And his roof showed signs of leaking.

“Now I’ll find out how good my insurance is,” he said.

But he was grateful it wasn’t worse; with the predicted storm surge, he wasn’t sure he’d have a home to come back to, he said.

His neighbors just down the street lost a roof, another lost a dock, and multiple people had failed seawalls eroding the soil near their foundation. An unidentified house boat was half-sunk near Hurricane Pass, having floated away from its anchor.

Another San Carlos Islander, Bob Miller, lost more than a roof – he lost the roof over his head.

Miller has lived aboard his river boat for the past three years as he worked hard to restore it. But now, it’s on its side and nearly engulfed at the Bonita Bill’s marina.

“It really breaks my heart,” he said. “I’ll bring it back, whatever it takes.”

He found the boat with a palm tree growing through it on Estero Island, he said. Since then, he’s remodeled the interior and installed a new air conditioning unit. He also recently replaced the engine, a $10,000 fix. Now, it’s all ruined.

“The wind pushed it right over,” Miller said. It’s a river boat, not meant for ocean voyages, and doesn’t have a keel to help it stay balanced in high seas.

It’s going to be days before he can start working on it. For now, he’s staying with friends and trying to stay positive. The hull isn’t damaged. Miller will have to strip the interior down to the bones, but now he will get to redo it however he wants, he said.

He finally named the boat, this week: “The Invictus,” after a poem by William Ernest Henley that tells of an unconquerable soul.

“Irma knocked (my boat) down, but she won’t knock me down,” Miller said. “I saved it, and I’m going to save it again.”

Serving the community

While residents cleared away the branches and helped each other clean up, other members of the community started to try to give people a helping hand – and a full stomach.

The Reverend Shawn Critser didn’t waste a second after Hurricane Irma.

By Monday morning, Beach Baptist Church was ladling out free, hot meals to anyone who stopped by. Crister and his church family fed the masses from its Choice Market supply and from donations from local food banks and other restaurants, with no plans to stop while the need remained.

“This is the main reason, the main purpose of the church is to serve the community,” Critser said. Volunteers bustled behind him to give another person a burger, or chicken wings, or a slice of pork. “One sign in the front yard is all it took to get people here,” he said.

One sign – and people from the community spreading the word.

Heather Reagan, owner of Mom’s Fresh Produce, set up a charcoal grill outside her caf and started frying up fajitas. It didn’t take long for the spicy aroma to draw in a crowd.

It was the best birthday present ever to come back to her shop and home and find them untouched by Irma, Reagan said. Her birthday was Monday.

“I know everyone will be going stir crazy,” she said. She planned to serve up breakfast Wednesday.

By Tuesday morning, some of the southern areas of the island had power. Most of it did not. Residents had begun to return to the island Monday, and were venturing out to find fresh food and most of all, coffee.

Bonita Bill’s on San Carlos Island also opened its doors Tuesday, charging just a dollar for a cup of coffee and making sloppy joe sandwiches and chicken on its gas stove, sans electricity.

“There’s no place to go, everyone’s tired of being inside,” said Kerby Bowe, the general manager.

Bowe lives on Oak Street. His top priority was getting to the caf and making sure people could come in and get something to eat. Josh Linney, the kitchen manager, worked hard in the hot kitchen to cook up a meal. Irma was his first hurricane ever to experience, but Tuesday, he was focused on his community.

“People are sick of eating whatever freezer food they have,” Linney said. “Eating here makes everything a little more back to normal.”