Fort Myers Beach residents Chase Hussey and Erica Racz are worried their town will never be the same following the destruction brought by Hurricane Ian.
Before rebuilding their home and businesses, they said the community needs to be restored.
Hussey and Racz’s single-story home in the Palm Isles neighborhood — two miles from the beach — was almost 8 feet underwater after Ian’s storm surge pounded Southwest Florida a month ago.
Their three businesses — West Coast Pressure Cleaning, Paradise Sailing and Ranalli Parasailare — remain closed until further notice.
“As much as we’d love to go out there and fly parasails around in the sky, there’s things to do, and we have to help rebuild the community before we do that,” Hussey said.
Ian damaged or destroyed most of Hussey’s parasailing boats, but he was able to get one in the water two days after the storm. That’s when the Coast Guard reached out for search-and-rescue assistance.
“We had the captains, and we had the people,” Hussey said. “For a while, we were getting [residents] to and from Fort Myers Beach,” said Hussey, 36, who added that he transported search-and-rescue responders to places like Matlacha and Pine Island.
“[Since] the day after the hurricane, when everybody woke up and started looking in their garages and realizing their vehicles were done and that the homes were toast, we have all been in triage mode,” he said.
Hussey, Racz and Racz’s 14-year-old daughter have been living in an RV parked in their driveway for weeks. Still, they are helping neighbors, customers, employees and anyone else who needs assistance with cleanup and repairs.
Hussey said the worst part was assessing the damage after the storm.
“Opening the garage was probably the most helpless feeling I’ve ever had in my life because everything and anything that we had to help ourselves or anyone else was gone,” he said.
Realizing their power tools, vehicles and fuel were ruined, the couple had to turn to hand tools and brooms.
“I never cared about his tools until that day,” Racz said, recounting that it took four hours to take a door off its hinges with a screwdriver.
Racz, 35, fears Fort Myers Beach will never be the same.
“I just don’t want it to turn into a Fort Lauderdale or Miami,” she said. “I want Fort Myers Beach to stay the same. As bad as we all want that, we also know deep down that that might not be a possibility.”
Hussey shares those feelings.
“It’s a shame. It’s sad. But it’s never going to be what it used to be. The stick-frame homes and the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s homes aren’t there anymore,” he said.
Joe Orlandini, a Fort Myers Beach Realtor and developer, believes there may be a lot of changes in the town once new homes are built.
“We’re seeing demand for people wanting to come down here. The people that are looking to buy feel that there’s going to be a lot of new houses coming that will put a different value and an increased demand in value to the area.”
Joe Orlandini, Fort Myers Beach Realtor
He said some people who lost their homes may decide to leave because of the requirements to elevate when they rebuild. “
A lot of these people are retirees. … For them, it’s a lot of work having to deal with building a new house,” he said. “They like the old times, [and] they don’t want to build up in the air.”
Orlandini said residents who have to rebuild will face other challenges, like the 50% Rule. According to the town of Fort Myers Beach website, “The 50% Rule is a regulation of the National Flood Insurance Program that prohibits improvements to a structure exceeding 50% of its market value unless the entire structure is brought into full compliance with current flood regulations.”
Those regulations can vary depending on what flood zone the home is in. For Fort Myers Beach residents, that could mean elevating the home anywhere from 11 to 19 feet.
“You’re lifting your house up out of the flood zone, and that becomes the key component of getting yourself off that grid of the 50% rule,” Orlandini said. However, if a homeowner does not need more than 50% in improvements, the home can remain a ground-level unit.
There is a downside to saving older homes. According to Orlandini, residents may face an insurance crisis.
“If you’ve got five new houses but you’ve got 30 old houses, those old houses become a risk for the new houses,” he said. “But if you have 30 new houses and five old houses, your risk level becomes a lot less. The reason we’re picking up debris throughout Fort Myers Beach is because we had a lot of nonconforming buildings.”
Orlandini said that not having enough skilled engineers and contractors may cause problems in the rebuilding process.
“They’re not cookie-cutter houses, and they’re not cookie-cutter permits,” he said. “It’s not like a slab-on-grade house in Gateway or Babcock Ranch,” a pair of developments in the region.
“We need to put [Fort Myers Beach] back in place quickly, but we’ve got to be thoughtful in what we’re doing,” Orlandini said. “I want the mom-and-pop culture that we have down here to stay, and it’s imperative that we keep that culture and keep that style and the way that we are on this island. It’s why we’re as unique as we are, and we don’t want to lose that.”
The U.S. Census Bureau reported a median household income of $75,919 for Fort Myers Beach for the years 2016-20. The question remains whether the future Fort Myers Beach will be home to only the wealthy.
Like many others, Hussey and Racz said they were not prepared for what Hurricane Ian did to Fort Myers Beach.
“I’m not a weatherman … but you couldn’t have made a more perfect chain of events to give Fort Myers Beach the worst possible outcome,” Hussey said, referring to high tide, a new moon and the storm’s eyewall over Sanibel.
Before Hussey moved his family to a neighbor’s two-story home to wait out the storm, he told them to pack two bags. Racz said that she didn’t grasp what Hussey meant when he told her to pack her valuables.
“I was like, ‘OK. I am going to need deodorant, a toothbrush, an extra pair of shoes and clothing and a phone charger.’ You don’t think to [grab] the baby pictures. There are things you don’t even think about until time goes on and you’re having these conversations where you’re like, ‘Oh, no. Where’s this?’”
Erica Racz, Fort Myers Beach resident
“We went through and picked apart our lives, which was probably the most gut-wrenching thing you can ever do,” Hussey said.
Despite losing everything and not knowing what the future of Fort Myers Beach holds, Racz said she and Hussey don’t plan on giving up on their dream and that they will restore their businesses when the time is right.
“In the meantime, we are trying to figure out what we can do to at least generate some income for ourselves, our family and our employees until that time that we can go back and do what it is that we love, which is parasailing,” Hussey said.
Whether it’s big developers or current residents and business owners rebuilding, Orlandini said the work needs to be done quickly now that tourism will be nonexistent on the beach.
“It’s the key to the town,” he said. “It’s going to affect and ripple the back side of the county. Everything that’s off island, they’re going to feel the ripple. If they don’t think they are and they don’t care about costs down here and what is affected, be prepared, the rest of Lee County, you’re going to feel the ripple. It’s coming.”
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