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Hurricane Irma leaves wounds in waterways

By Staff | Sep 20, 2017

Waterside residents around the county are reporting damaged seawalls – and as more and more reports roll in, it will take longer and longer for repairs to be done.

“The people of Florida are tough. They know we’re in hurricane highway, but a lot of new people moving in the last 10 years haven’t experienced a hurricane,” said U.S. Sen, Bill Nelson, (D) Wednesday.

Nelson toured several areas of Florida to survey some of the damage done from the storm and stopped in Fort Myers at the home of Howard Wheeler, president of Chris-Tel Construction. Wheeler lives on a canal-side home off of McGregor Boulevard; both he and many of his neighbors experienced extensive seawall damage.

Seawalls are kept upright by a balanced pressure from the water on one side and the land, called upland pressure, from the other.

When the hurricane’s low pressure and winds sucked the water out of the canals and away from the seawall, it lost one side of pressure. At the same time, the upland pressure increased, causing seawalls to crumble or “kick” from the bottom.

When this happens, the wall can’t just be pushed back into place, said Brent Stokes, president of Stokes Marine. The whole segment must be replaced.

And the bad news for most is that seawalls aren’t covered by homeowners insurance.

“My friends in the business are getting 200 to 400 calls (for estimates),” Wheeler said. “My biggest concern is your value just went into the canal.”

With homeowner’s insurance not covering seawall damage, many people will have to pay out of pocket or get a bank loan with a high interest rate. Costs depend on the complications on a property as well as the size of the wall to be replaced, Stokes said. There has to be room to get heavy equipment into someone’s back yard, which means maneuvering around docks, boat lifts and small setbacks. If there isn’t enough space to drive equipment behind a home, it can be done by barge – but fewer companies offer that, he said. Costs could vary between $500 to $700 per foot, he estimated – so, a 100-foot seawall replacement could cost $50,000 and more.

This widespread issue could really put a dent in property and home values, Wheeler said.

Nelson spoke to Wheeler, Stokes and Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki while he surveyed Wheeler’s damages.

“The good news is, homeowners can apply for an assistance loan or remediation,” he said. “Homeowners and local governments should apply to FEMA.”

Nelson’s answer for the majority of seawall loss was to vigorously apply to Federal Emergency Management Agency or try to get a small business disaster loan for the replacement. But, he also said FEMA “has been busy” with Hurricane Harvey in Texas and the whole state of Florida for Hurricane Irma; now, Hurricane Maria threatens Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The issue is also tied to the fact that one person’s seawall is connected to the neighbor’s. If one person can fix the wall and another person can’t, it will cause a problem in the next storm.

“It needs to be a coordinated effort,” he said. “Otherwise the weak point next time will affect it.”

Sawicki said she’s spoken with marine companies in Cape Coral and they’ve already gotten a flood of at least 800 calls for estimates.

“That’s without snowbirds,” she said.

The City of Cape Coral is hoping to work with the Florida PACE Funding Agency to offer low-interest loans to Cape homeowners to help them rebuild their walls.

“If you have one who can afford it and one who can’t, what do you do?” Sawicki said. “They (the walls) depend on each other. You can’t just do one.”

Talks have been initiated by the city, she said, but nothing has been finalized. There will be a potential walk-on agenda item at Monday’s council meeting regarding the potential option.

“It’s to help our residents,” she said. “It’s going to be a state-wide problem. Welcome to the new normal.”

Potential loans or FEMA funding aside, the actual work to be done could be a problem as well.

Stokes is the president of his company. Before anyone even heard about Irma, before the storm had developed, his company was already backlogged by seven weeks of work – just regular jobs. Now, on top of those jobs, the storm work is piling up, too.

Stokes can’t speak for other companies, but his is already getting a massive load of calls from people needing seawall repair from the storm.

It’s going to be a state-wide problem – which could impact the cost and availability of the materials and the labor needed to do the job.

“There’s been a shortage of skilled labor here since 2007, when the economy turned,” he said. “It’s been coming back, but slowly. It’s a big mess.”

Another consequence will be to those who can afford to pay out for seawall repair and those who have to wait for FEMA funding.

“People who don’t need to wait for FEMA are already contracting out,” he said. “So some folks are even farther behind.”

Nelson wouldn’t say how long it would take locals to actually get FEMA money in their hands. He was able to get the first FEMA representative in Lee County to arrive in Lehigh Acres in the last week. But he said if someone is having trouble with FEMA, the homeowner needs to reach out to representatives.

“Tell them to call Bill Nelson,” he said.

Nelson brought staff with him from his Washington D.C. office to help those in need fill out FEMA applications. But it will be weeks or even months before the work will get done.

“I predict we’ll be doing seawall repairs well into 2018, no if’s, and’s or but’s about it,” Stokes said.