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How to spend more than $1 billion for long-term recovery post-Ian

Damaged homes and debris are shown in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian on Sept. 29, 2022, in Fort Myers, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee
Hurricane Ian damaged homes and left massive piles of debris in Fort Myers on September 28, 2022. This photo was taken the next day.

Imagine more than $1 billion. That's how much government money is expected to flow into Southwest Florida in coming months and years to pay for long-term recovery from Hurricane Ian.

The massive influx of money has the potential to transform the area, and the ability of the region to survive future storms. Right now Lee County alone is slated to receive $1.1 billion from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"We are the first county in the country to get an award of that size," Mayor Kevin Anderson of Fort Myers said. "Usually that kind of money goes to a state, which then splits it up among counties."

Anderson serves on the Lee Recovery Task Force. He said that the town hall meetings going on now are designed to gather input from residents on how best to spend the billion dollars. He said most of the money is expected to go to lower and moderate-income neighborhoods.

He said one option would be to set up a program to help people pay for stronger roofs on their homes, and to pay for better storm protection on windows and doors. Another option could be to help communities bury power lines to prevent long losses of electricity.

"Between housing and infrastructure, that's where most of the dollars are going to apply," he said. "It could be making our water plants stronger. Because during Ian, we lost water."

Anderson said the money could transform the area.

"My vision, my hope is that in six to 10 years, you'll be able to drive through the city and county and there won't be blighted areas. You'd no longer see that."

John Best of North Fort Myers is not so optimistic that the money flowing into the region will be spent wisely.

"Confidence about it? No!" he said. "I've been here for 27 years, and what is supposed to get done, don't get done. It's politicians, politics."

Lorna Harding of the Dunbar community in Fort Myers is more hopeful that the money will be spent to help people. She said the roof on her home sustained damage from Ian. And that was true of many other homes in Dunbar, she added.

"And people need it, rich or poor," Harding said of financial help. "Building your home from scratch - well some people can't afford that. And insurance didn't cover."

Mayor Anderson said now is the time for the area to renew itself.

"There is a silver lining after a storm," he said. "And that is the infusion of federal dollars to build back bigger, better, stronger and more resilient."

The influx of money is huge, and so is the task of planning for it and documenting its use. As a result Lee County is setting up a new Office of Strategic Resources and Government Affairs. That office will be responsible for planning out and tracking the spending of the billion-plus dollars from HUD.

The current plan is for Lee County commissioners to sign off on how to spend the money, and then sending that document to HUD for approval. The county action is supposed to happen by the end of this year.

Mike Walcher is a visiting assistant professor in the FGCU Journalism program. He also works at WGCU News. He can be reached at mwalcher@fgcu.edu
WGCU is your trusted source for news and information in Southwest Florida. We are a nonprofit public service, and your support is more critical than ever. Keep public media strong and donate now. Thank you.

Forty-one-year veteran of television news in markets around the country, including more than 18 years as an anchor and reporter at WINK-TV in southwest Florida.