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Fort Myers Beach town hall begins with simmering frustration but ends with answers on rebuilding

The devastation on Fort Myers Beach is clear in a view south of Matanzas Pass Preserve.
Thomas James for WGCU/NPR
The devastation on Fort Myers Beach is clear in a view south of Matanzas Pass Preserve.

A fairly quiet homegrown crowd of about 125 gathered in a tent replacing the damaged Fort Myers Beach town hall Friday evening as representatives from city government and fire department, FEMA, SBA and others fielded questions about Hurricane Ian recovery efforts.

The questions ranged from permitting, insurance, debris removal and other issues that have arisen or still remain from Ian’s pass through Southwest Florida in late September and mostly came from home- and condo-owners wanting to rebuild or repair and wondering exactly where the money would come from.

The answer for many was that the number used to determine the value of their property when Ian struck was available at the Lee County Property Appraiser’s website. https://Leepa.org. This is the number, determined by the municipality, that will influence what amount flood insurance might cover and whether or not homeowners meet the “50 percent rule.”

Clearly, plenty of attendees had that very rule at the top of their minds.

“I might as well rip off the Band-Aid and talk about the 50 percent rule,” said Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, near the beginning of the nearly two-hour meeting (recorded and available at www.youtube.com/@townoffortmyersbeachfl6929).

Most discussion was about that rule, which determines whether “significant damage” has occurred. That threshold is when it would cost equal-to or more-than 50 percent of the market value of the structure to repair it to its “before damage” (pre-Ian) value.

“I might as well rip off the Band-Aid and talk about the 50 percent rule.”
Kevin Guthrie, director, Florida Division of Emergency Management

The problem is often that for older buildings to meet the codes (mainly, elevation requirements) that changed after Hurricane Andrew in the 1990s, more money is required than the 50 percent rule would allow.

Value assessments are based on living structures only, not fences, pool cages, docks or sheds, Guthrie said.

Several owners of older homes wondered aloud how they could make up the difference between the assessed value of their home and the cost required to elevate it or make other Hurricane Ian repairs.

One owner of a multi-function property was frustrated that she could get some help as a homeowner but not as a business owner. Christine and DeWitt Willis lived in and rented part of their property to guests at Dolphin’s Tale on Andre del Mar Drive.

There’s “nothing there now but sand,” said DeWitt Willis.

“This is our retirement,” said Christine Willis. “I lost my house… It sounds like you want big business (here),” she said, lamenting the cost of building back to new codes and the difficulty the couple had paying for a hotel room and a trailer.

In this aerial photo made in a flight provided by mediccorps.org, damage from Hurricane Ian is seen on Estero Island in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., on Friday.
Gerald Herbert
/
AP
In this aerial photo made in a flight provided by mediccorps.org, damage from Hurricane Ian is seen on Estero Island in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., on Friday.

Acknowledging that the regulations can be difficult to follow, Division Supervisor for Lee County Bob Fogel said he has been repeating this advice to everyone who is struggling for answers: TAR. “Talk to us. Advocate for yourself and others. And read” thoroughly what you receive from state and federal agencies.

Representatives from FEMA were available to talk about and troubleshoot individual cases after the meeting.

Property owners were also cautioned to answer phone calls from numbers they don’t recognize, because legitimate disaster relief contractors may be coming from anywhere in the country. They’ll try three times to reach someone and then quit.

At the same time, owners were reminded that scams are prevalent after a disaster, and if an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Still have questions? Town officials asked that residents with any questions about disaster recovery start with the FAQ on the town website. https://www.fortmyersbeachfl.gov/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=903

Apply for debris removal services on Fort Myers Beach property at iandebriscleanup.com. Condominium owners should be aware that various signatures are required for debris clean-up firms to have legal access to the right-of-way on the property.

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