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‘Monster’ Hurricane Ian brings devastation to Florida’s booming south-west- Newshubweek

‘Monster’ Hurricane Ian brings devastation to Florida’s booming south-west
Written by Arindam

Three years ago, Karen Hamilton and her husband Randy sold their house in Indianapolis and moved full-time to Pine Ridge Palms, a community of mobile homes in Fort Myers, Florida, to live out their golden years.

This week, their humble enclave of snowbirds and sunseekers was in tatters — and on edge. The power had been out for days, there was no clean water, and twisted sheets of aluminium torn from the surrounding homes were piled up in front yards. A makeshift sign beside the American flag at the entranceway warned that looters would be shot.

“It boggles the mind,” Karen Hamilton said, surveying the damage from Hurricane Ian, one of the most destructive storms to hit the state. She counted herself lucky: hers was not among three homes at Pine Ridge Palms that had caught fire and burnt down during the storm — or the many others that will probably have to be scrapped because of water damage.

“Ian’s a monster,” she said. “He’s huge, absolutely huge.”

The monster walloped a corner of the state that has, in recent years, been among its most powerful magnets for newcomers, turning onetime swamp land into housing developments and burnishing Florida’s boom-time allure. Fort Myers and neighbouring Cape Coral ranked as the nation’s hottest housing market this year, according to federal data. After a sharp turn before landfall that surprised authorities and hampered evacuations, Ian has, for now, broken that magical spell.

Animation showing wind speeds of hurricane Ian as it crossed Florida

The death toll has surpassed 100, and is expected to rise further. Many victims drowned, according to the state medical examiner. One man, 73, shot himself to death after seeing the damage to his property.

Carmine Marceno, the sheriff for Lee County, became emotional this week as he spoke about rescuers sorting through rubble for bodies in Fort Myers Beach, where large boats were tossed ashore like toys and many structures are now simply plots of land. The seaside town, said Senator Marco Rubio, “no longer exists”.

Alongside the devastation were surreal scenes, too: stray cows wandering along the shoulder of Interstate 75 and automatic sprinklers spraying already soaked golf courses.

During a visit on Wednesday, President Joe Biden said it would take years — not months — for the area to recover. In the meantime, he argued: “I think the one thing this has finally ended is a discussion about whether or not there’s climate change, and [that] we should do something about it.”

Standing beside him was Ron DeSantis, Florida’s popular Republican governor, who has been loath to discuss climate change — although he has devoted money to improve resiliency on the coast.

The political argument over climate change is one element that will affect how and in what way the region recovers. Research suggests that, after a short-term interruption, Americans return to shorelines hit by hurricanes. The lure of the beach and weather is too great — even with the risk of intensifying storms.

An aerial view of the destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Ian in Fort Meyers Beach
An aerial view of the destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Ian in Fort Meyers Beach © Win McNamee/Getty Images

But the types of housing that are built and the composition of the residents may change. Fewer than 20 per cent of those in the counties worst affected by Ian had flood insurance, and may struggle to rebuild even with federal support. Florida’s soaring property insurance premiums will also add to their costs. Some suspect that will create an opening for developers to raze what is left of battered communities and erect more expensive properties.

Even before Ian, south-west Florida was in flux, according to Ken Johnson, a real estate economist at Florida Atlantic University, with more affluent arrivals sending many retirees to less expensive parts of the Gulf Shore.

“It’s going to bounce back, but it won’t be the same city,” Johnson said. “Very rarely does it go back to what it was.”

For south-west Florida, Ian represents the latest chapter in a boom-and-bust story. The inventor Thomas Edison came to the area in the 1880s, and built a winter estate in Fort Myers. Eventually, his friend Henry Ford joined him. Yet much of the surrounding area was marshland until developers came calling in the 1950s, draining it and digging hundreds of miles of canals to make way for housing. Many newcomers came from the Midwest in the 1970s. North-easterners, by contrast, have tended to flock to the state’s glitzier east coast.

A makeshift sign in Fort Myers following the Hurricane Ian
A makeshift sign in Fort Myers following the Hurricane Ian © Joe Raedle/Getty Images

By the early 2000s, the Fort Myers real estate market was among the most overheated in the country. Then came the 2008 financial crisis, and the city was one of the principal outposts of America’s housing bust. The level of home foreclosures was suitably dire and the strip malls sufficiently vacant that then-president Barack Obama came to visit in 2009, using Fort Myers as a backdrop for a big speech touting his fiscal stimulus plan.

“Huge boom. Huge bust,” Johnson said.

It has since roared back. Housing is now scarce. Demand had become so great that rents in Fort Myers and neighbouring Cape Coral increased by an astonishing 21.6 per cent since last August, trailing Miami by a fraction in a nationwide index compiled by Florida Atlantic with data from Zillow.

“Twenty years ago, it was nothing here. It was cows,” said Nikos Kontakos, the owner of the Sunflower Café.

Kontakos emigrated from southern Greece to Chicago in 1976. Then, in 1999, he and his wife, Anna, followed the sun to Fort Myers and opened the restaurant. On Monday afternoon, its banquettes were lined up in the parking lot, drying in the sun. It was too soon to know what would happen with the insurance.

Inside, the couple were sharing pizza and soda with their kitchen staff, another group of immigrants from Mexico and Honduras who had been in Florida for as long as 19 years — and as little as three months. There were only a few chairs, and so many sat on a carpet that smelled of mould. They laughed — and so did Anna — at her imperfect Spanish.

“I’m here since 1999. I’ve been through a lot of them but that was the worst,” she said of Ian, noting how its plodding speed had drawn out the agony.

Then John Lloyd, a contractor from Minnesota wearing a high-visibility vest, walked in. Lloyd owns a condo on the nearby beach. He and his son-in-law, Josh, bought 36 fans to dry carpets, loaded them into a truck and set off on a 32-hour drive.

“When my granddaughter heard the Sunflower was flooded, she cried,” he explained. “This is my second home.” Lloyd insisted that Nikos and Anna accept his water vacuum; they insisted that he accept pizza. It was the kindness wrought by extreme events.

Like the Hamiltons, the Kontakoses and the Lloyds, many have been lured by the warm climate, the beaches and the affordability of low-tax Florida. The state’s laissez-faire approach to business closures and mask mandates during the Covid-19 pandemic, under Governor DeSantis, was an added draw for Lincoln Timson.

He came in 2021 after quitting California, where he had become disenchanted with a progressive governor, migration and too many bike lanes. The house he sold near San Diego allowed him to pay off a $300,000 loan and then pay cash for a $225,000 house in Cape Coral. He took a job as a night-time security guard at a golf club.

“I had a good life going here,” he said, as he waited in the sun outside a community centre to file an insurance claim. His damage was relatively light.

Sitting beside him were two retirees, Kay and Wally, who arrived from Illinois in 2020. It was their first hurricane, and they relied on seasoned neighbours to show them how to fix storm shutters and make other preparations.

“We came for the climate. The people are nice, and most of them are transplants like us,” said Kay, a former nursing professor, politely explaining that her politics were not exactly aligned with Timson’s.

Because of the high cost of housing, they ended up buying on the other side of the interstate highway, further inland. They suspected that may have spared them from worse damage last week. They escaped with only a damaged pool cover. Like Timson, there was no talk of leaving — although their first hurricane appears to have somewhat revised their understanding of their new home.

“Paradise,” Karen Hamilton said. “Until Ian came.”

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Arindam

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