Fort Myers in Lee County, Florida, was recently hit by one of the most powerful storms ever recorded. Now, residents are longing for the return of visitors – I went to find out what it’s like to holiday in the aftermath of a hurricane.
Driving through pockets of Fort Myers, remnants of the devastation are still clear to see, as piles of rubble are scattered where homes and restaurants once stood strong. Only a few months ago, on 28 September, Hurricane Ian brought Lee County to its knees as more than 150 people were killed from flooding and 160mph winds. The devastating Category 5 storm was one of the most powerful natural disasters of its kind ever recorded, and the residents have paid the price. Thousands lost their homes and are unable to claim insurance, while the total estimated cost to repair the destruction has been priced at over $100 billion.
Yet, among the ruin, light shone in the dark; the glow of collective togetherness was all around. On the drive to Captiva Island, I saw builders in high-vis jackets on every street working tirelessly in the sweltering Floridian sunshine, repairing buildings or making new ones. Behemoth Mad Max-style lorries with huge claws kept passing on the roads – they had apparently been everywhere since the disaster, picking up mounds of litter and taking it away to be disposed of. In pull-ins and parking lots along the highways, food trucks, like the Blue Giraffe, had adapted to losing their permanent establishments and continued to serve the local community fresh coffee and the avalanches of supersized food that Florida has become synonymous with.
Nothing epitomised the spirit of togetherness more, though, than the Sanibel Island food market, a makeshift microcosm in a car park, where local small businesses – from honey makers to cake bakers – set up weekly stalls on a Sunday to sell their goods. The place was heaving, full of friends catching up and buying high-quality organic produce. Seeing all the smiling faces almost made me forget what had happened to the area only recently, although reality slapped when I spotted a trolley stuck up high in a tree. Busy welcoming newcomers and keeping the ship sailing was Jean Baer, the market’s founder. She told me: “I set this place up in the car park to keep a shred of normality going during such difficult times and give local business a lifeline in impossible circumstances, and it has done just that – I’ve never felt so proud of my community.” Just after speaking to her, a man passed me wearing a fluorescent green top with ‘Still Standing’ printed on it, which, I thought, perfectly captured the local spirit.
For the next few days, I stayed at the ‘Tween Waters Island Resort & Spa, located next to a picture-perfect white sandy beach where the fins of dolphins arched out of the water from time to time. Other than the wavering wifi – owing to damage to the router – the effects of the storm were non-existent. I enjoyed an ice-cold Lemonshark, a local IPA, at the pool went to the Mucky Duck for a seafood platter on the beach while watching the sun set in the purple-orange haze. No matter where you are in the world, everyone is drawn to a sunset. And this one happened to be one the best I’d seen. It even got a round of applause from the onlookers. Only Americans would clap a sunset, I thought – though I wasn’t complaining, if anything it added to it.
A breakfast of filter coffee and a cheese, egg and bacon bagel at the Blue Giraffe helped relinquish the slight hangover, before driving down the road to JN Ding Darling wildlife refuge, which had reopened on 4 April after a community effort to clear the path of boats and, bizarrely, church pews that had been carried in the storm and become stuck in the mangroves. The reserve is famous for its 12ft alligator and “America’s best toilet”. If you don’t come for the wildlife, come for the bog. It was the first time I’d been shown round a toilet. Aside from the impressive facilities, I got to see manatees, osprey, alligators and raccoons in the reserve. It was fascinating to hear how the local effort to get the refuge open again for visitors had, like the market, “served as a form of mental health healing during the aftermath of storm by giving people something to do and focus on outside of the disaster”, said ranger Toni Westland.
The next day, I took a boat from McCarthy’s Marina over to Cabbage Key. Soaking in the rays out on the water, with dolphin pods swimming alongside and weathered shacks on stilts passing by, was nothing short of spectacular. Pristine white wooden buildings of colonial grandeur and well-pruned gardens greeted me on the other side. It was almost impossible to conceive that a hurricane had hit the island merely months ago. At the restaurant, I ate in-season stone crab claws and smoked fish pate and washed it down with a pina colada before trying their ‘world famous’ (everything is apparently famous in America) cheeseburger, which, to be fair, was worthy of such a title.
After several days in what felt like paradise on Captiva Island, I headed back to the city via Fort Myers beach – one of the worst hit areas in Lee County. What looked like bombed-out buildings lined the street, surrounded by solid metal fences that had been bent like pipe cleaners in the storm. However, it didn’t deter the beachgoers, who were out in force. A man played his guitar in the car park to a crowd who whooped and cheered when he thanked everyone for supporting each other during collective struggle. Among the rubble, the construction of Margaritaville arose. It hopes to be open and welcoming hundreds of visitors by September. Further along in Downtown we stayed at the chic Luminary hotel, where Donald Trump had stayed only a week prior on his trip to Florida. Don’t let that put you off though, it is a truly spectacular place to stay, with views out over the bay. A tour of the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, where Thomas Edison and Henry Ford stayed while working on revolutionising the country, and indeed the world, were the final places I explored before flying back.
It felt like a bittersweet privilege being able to see Fort Myers for myself. It was nothing short of harrowing seeing some of the destruction that had been caused, but an honor to meet its residents and be reminded of the kindness in humanity and the power of collective spirit. As a result of a gargantuan community effort, the area is once again back open for tourism, and there’s never been a better, more pressing, time to go. I would encourage anyone looking to visit Florida to look beyond the parks of Orlando and consider Fort Myers. Not only is it a beautiful, relaxing holiday destination in year-round sunshine with some of the best seafood in the country, but by going, you are boosting the local economy and, in part, helping Fort Myers get back on its feet.
Eager to learn more about Fort Myers? Visit www.visitfortmyers.com for all the information you need.
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