News & Media
Waterway with boats in Fort Myers, Florida
John Coletti, Image Bank, Getty Images

Fort Myers Doing Well Four Months after Ian

Work still needs done, but anyone standing in downtown Fort Myers would be hard pressed to see damage from one of the U.S.’s most destructive hurricanes.

FORT MYERS, Fla. – When the downtown going got tough, downtown folks got going. Drop an alien from space into downtown Fort Myers during a busy January afternoon, and they could never tell that one of the most destructive hurricanes ever to strike the United States brought the region to its knees nearly four months prior.

Hurricane Ian’s turgid storm surge thrust the Caloosahatchee River over its banks, attacking downtown like an out-of-control wave machine. The water pushed past doors and seeped through windows, filling the buildings, mostly on Bay and First streets and those running parallel with four, five, and six feet of water. When the water receded, it left mud, mold and a mess.

The city is still assessing the damage, but Mayor Kevin Anderson said a low estimate is $700 million in damage to homes, businesses and cars.

The worst damage was to the properties near the Caloosatchee, which meant downtown took the brunt of the sucker punch. The storm closed the yacht basin and left a boat graveyard between Centennial Park and Joe’s Crab Shack.

Mayor Anderson saw the raging river of water firsthand from his rented condo at First and Hendry streets. He was amazed as the water covered the top of a Federal Express drop-off box at Bay and Edward streets.

Jim Griffith was just as much in awe as he watched the storm from the safety of Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center where he is the CEO. He kept Nils Richter, one of downtown’s largest property owners, updated until Mr. Richter decided in the middle of the storm to drive from his McGregor Boulevard home to see it for himself.

The next day business owners, employees and volunteers got to see the results of Hurricane Ian’s savagery firsthand and started cleaning up.

“I was just amazed at how the very next day there was just a flood of people downtown who just immediately went to work and started ripping everything out and started cleaning up and getting all the debris out,” Mr. Griffith said. “It was just a remarkable recovery for downtown. It happened in such a quick timeframe.”

The art center had its own damage. The basement – yes, a rare Florida basement – flooded, destroying everything in storage and making the elevator useless.

Still, the art center became the center for the cleanup. It was the drop-off point for people bringing clothes, food, diapers and other items for people who lost their homes and livelihood.

Lisa Sbuttoni is president and CEO of the Fort Myers River District Alliance. Her job is to oversee the 27 events sponsored by the district. Downtown wasn’t ready for events in October, but the Alliance kicked off November with the return of Art Walk. It then decorated the downtown for Christmas and held a successful New Year’s Eve celebration.

“I think those emergency management teams and the city workers, everybody worked real, real hard downtown to get open,” she said. “For a while there, every day, we saw someone opening up.”

Every business has a Hurricane Ian story. Some have happy endings, some don’t. Some endings are still being written.

Nobody is more important to downtown Fort Myers than the Kearns Restaurant Group. It owns seven downtown eateries. The owners had a two-pronged task – to make sure their management team and employees were OK and then to clean up and rebuild.

The restaurants on the south side of First Street fared better than those on the north side. Izzy’s Fish & Oyster Bar re-opened first and then Ford’s Garage and The Lodge. Firestone, on Bay Street, received the most damage. The first floor, which housed the business operation, was destroyed. Even the rooftop bar was damaged. Kearns is looking to reopen it by the beginning of February.

The restaurant group did what some other businesses did, they took extra time to make improvements while they were shut down, said Zak Kearns, a founding partner of the company.

Capone’s and Cabos Catina were more of a rebuild. They expanded Social House’s patio, something they had planned to do later.

“We pushed it quicker,” Mr. Kearns said.

Starbucks and 3 Pepper Burritos are delaying opening to make changes. The signs on Starbucks’ doors say “we’re getting a makeover.” The original 3 Pepper Burritos on First Street is getting a facelift, said Shaun Bittner, area manager.

“There’s no timeframe,” he said about opening. “Maybe May or June.” The company is talking about adding a burger concept, he said, but it hasn’t made a final decision.

Getting businesses up and running hasn’t been cheap. There’s also the revenue lost while they were closed.

Mr. Kearns wouldn’t give an exact cost of the damage to the downtown establishments, but said it was “a healthy six figures.”

City Tavern opened on Jan. 20 to limited hours four days a week. The tavern had 40 inches of water throughout, said Perry Hauser, director of operations. They had to cut out 4 feet of drywall, take out the floor, put in new seating and bathrooms, and seal and treat what remained. They are waiting for equipment before they can open the kitchen and begin regular hours.

Mr. Hauser said their insurance wouldn’t cover the losses. He wasn’t comfortable saying how much they lost in revenue while being closed or how much it cost to rebuild.

“It’s definitely gut-wrenching,” he said.

Chris Blauvelt, who owns the Standard restaurant on Broadway with his brother Doug, said he lost $15,000 just in food he had to toss. He figures he lost about $100,000 in business while cleaning up and fixing the water damage.

Rene Miville, owner of the Franklin Shops, at the corner of First and Broadway, said he paid $110,000 for repairs and some upgrades. He is replacing the original windows that were broken by the flood waters with hurricane-strength glass. He’s restored the floors to the way they looked 90 years ago and added marble flooring to the window display.

Florida Repertory Theatre had some good news and some bad. The water only penetrated underneath the stage and into the orchestra pit of the Arcade Theater, where it holds most of its shows. It never reached the seats thanks to the steep angle of the lobby. The bad news was the Caloosahatchee’s waters attacked the rest of the theater complex. The water flooded the Art Stage Studio Theater, which was remediated immediately. But the education department, rehearsal hall, backstage and costume shop were destroyed.

“If you include everything, if you include the remediation and build back, we’re into the millions,” said Greg Longenhagen, producing artistic director at the Florida Rep. The Florida Rep is working on a plan to raise the money with loans or FEMA grants.

The Arts for ACT Gallery on First Street is still working on opening. “Hopefully by March,” said Claudia Goode, director of human resources for Arts for ACT. Tourist season is a big moneymaker, she added. “Missing season is hurting us a lot.”

More than 2 feet of water rushed through the store, destroying all the computers and equipment. Water also seeped in through the floors of the early 20th-century building. It had no concrete below the flooring, Ms. Goode said, only dirt. It will cost about $50,000 to replace contents and another $50,000 for the rebuild, she said. The store had no flood insurance.

There’s no official list of how many businesses closed for good.

The co-owner of the Green Cup Café said he won’t be coming back, at least to its Dean Street location. Owners Robbie Podgorski and Jennifer Carbajal bought the organic café in March 2020, just when the pandemic hit.

Podgorski and Carbajal lost their restaurant, house and cars in Hurricane Ian. They had no insurance. Podgorski said they are trying to start over and are looking for another spot in downtown or elsewhere locally.

First Street Restaurant at First and Hendry streets is another that won’t be reopening, Richter said.

The Alliance’s Sbuttoni said Wise Guys, Man on First and Market Earth won’t be reopening.

The closing of some businesses will bring opportunities for others.

The good thing is downtown is in a position where there will be two, three, even four people interested in opening something up at a closed location, Mayor Anderson said.

Hurricane Ian will be a catalyst for change downtown, Richter said. Twenty-five years ago, many of the downtown ground floors housed lawyers, bail businesses and other offices. The storm will hasten the remaining departures. “There’s no sense putting an office on First Street,” Mr. Richter said. Offices need to be on the second and third floors. Restaurants and retail are what create foot traffic, he said.

The restaurants are creating foot traffic since they reopened. Mr. Richter’s restaurants are doing as well, as they did during tourist season last year. “There’s no difference,” he said. He believes the snowbirds and tourists who would be going to Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel are coming downtown.

The Standard’s Mr. Blauvelt said the snowbirds are helping business, but he isn’t seeing many tourists. But he’s optimistic.

“It’s getting better every day, every weekend,” he said.

The Alliance’s Ms. Sbuttoni sees the same thing. “We’re not at 100%,” she said. “But we’re getting there.”

© Copyright 2023 Florida Weekly. All rights reserved.