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Downtown Fort Myers businesses hoping to rebuild and reopen after Hurricane Ian

Green Cup Cafe stands along Dean Street in downtown Fort Myers. The flood line measured five-feet-tall in some areas inside.
Riley Hazel
Democracy Watch/WGCU
Storm surge from Hurricane Ian pushed boats along the Caloosahatchee River into downtown Fort Myers.

Owners of some downtown Fort Myers businesses are rebuilding and hoping to reopen after Hurricane Ian blasted through Southwest Florida nearly a month ago.

Robert Podgorski and his girlfriend Jennifer Carbajal, co-owners of Green Cup Cafe, are looking for ways to proceed with their restaurant after losing an estimated $80,000. That happened after four feet of water came rushing through their building. Factoring in the loss of labor, Podgorski and Carbajal are looking at possibly $100,000 in losses.

“It just looked like someone went in there and flipped everything upside down,” Podgorski said. “You can just tell the power of the water and just the undulation and movement knocked all of the refrigerators over full of mud water. You could just literally tell it looked like a little baby ocean was inside the restaurant.”

Podgorski said it will take some time before he considers reopening.

In addition to the cafe, Podgorski’s historic home in Dean Park and two cars were deemed a total loss. He and Carbajal escaped the eight feet of storm surge with their dogs by climbing to their balcony and swimming to their neighbor’s house.

Now, nearly one month later, Podgorski is eager to get back to business. He wants to employ his restaurant workers to operate a food truck at various locations around the area. He said The Martinez Family Foundation is helping him with this effort.

“[This] can not only give our staff something to do and bring in some money, but also so we can help create some foundation and can help those people that had it worse off than us,” Podgorski said.

Quartz and Clover, a women-run crystal shop, flooded as well. Whitney Hackett and her mom, Sharon Kiesel, are co-owners of the business. The day after the storm Hackett asked a friend to drive her down to her shop which is just a quarter-mile away from the Fort Myers Yacht Basin. Ian caused major damage to the basin, tossing around even large boats like toys.

Hackett went to the store and said she walked into sludge from the Caloosahatchee River. She said the shop flooded with 16 inches of water.

“It really is a loss of business – having to be closed,” Hackett said. “That's been really the biggest setback for us.”

Hackett and Kiesel say they would have never thought that the shop location would flood. Their building dates back to the 1800s, and Kiesel believes this is one of the first times it has flooded. Hackett said she plans to reopen Quartz and Clover soon, possibly in early November.

Cafe owner Robert Podgorski does not have flood insurance, explaining that it was just too expensive. Flood insurance is a policy that must be paid in addition to homeowners insurance. To be eligible to receive aid, Podgorski would have had to purchase a policy prior to the hurricane.

“Coverage for insurance would be pretty astronomical,” Podgorski said. “It's pretty unaffordable and we are priced out of it.”

Podgorski wants to stay as debt-free as possible, but he plans to apply for a small business loan for the cafe.

“We're trying to not put ourselves into debt after a catastrophe,” Podgorski said. “We're trying to find other resources and outlets to rebuild first, but it's kind of comforting to at least know that we take out a loan at a low enough interest rate.”

Small business loans are available in three categories: economic injury, physical disaster and emergency bridge. Emergency bridge loans are interest-free for up to one year allowing for $50,000 with the other two having a fixed 3.04% interest rate. The deadline to apply for a physical disaster loan is next month – Nov. 28.

“We are encouraging small businesses impacted by Hurricane Ian to seek available disaster assistance,” Florida Small Business Development Center spokesperson Amanda Simat said. “Currently, we have consultants working at Business Recovery Centers in Lee and Collier Counties. Partnered with the SBA, we are helping small business owners with filling out disaster loan applications.”

Disaster recovery specialists from The Florida Small Business Development Center at Florida Gulf Coast University are available to provide confidential, no-cost consulting to help affected businesses prepare disaster loan applications and with other post-disaster challenges.

Visit https://fsbdcswfl.org/ for more information and https://www.sba.gov/ to apply for a loan.

This story was produced by Democracy Watch, a news service provided by Florida Gulf Coast University journalism students. The reporter can be reached at rjhazel4249@eagle.fgcu.edu