Everglades City a Year After Hurricane Irma

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A year after Hurricane Irma’s storm surge washed over Everglade’s City, the rebuilding is still in progress. But for some, a year of patience, loss, hard work, and help is starting to pay off.   

At the Island Café on the main road into Everglades City, tourists like to try out gator bites but the locals tend to go for the cheeseburgers. On a recent visit, a year after Hurricane Irma deposited almost a foot of sludge on the floor- the wood-clad dining room was cleaned up and bustling with customers.

For this town of just over 400 people it’s been twelve months of hard work, waiting, and learning. Especially for Mayor Howie Grimm who was appointed mayor just five days before the storm hit.

“I didn’t know anything about government; I mean I’m used to being in business where things happen really quick, but with the government it doesn’t go that fast.  So, that’s been the biggest learning thing for me.  It’s patience,” said Grimm.

He smiled as he remembered the 8-thousand 5- hundred volunteers who flooded the town in the two months after the hurricane.  He said they discovered a place they wanted to return to- and that helped the town through what might have been a horrible tourist season.

“I met some of them in our retail market that said, ‘We just wanted to come back and help- we wanted to spend money in Everglades city to help you to recover,’” Grimm said.

Almost all the homes and businesses in Everglades City were badly damaged or destroyed. And, there was one hurricane Irma related death. Lee Marteeny- the Everglades fixture everyone in town seemed to know- died from a bacterial infection days after fighting through chest-high flood water.  He was escaping his home during the brunt of the storm. His wife, Lisa Marteeny, was by his side that day and still works in city hall where she does water billing.

“It just seems odd.  It seems like forever ago that we had the storm, but I can sit at the breakfast table in my mind and, you know, Lee’s right there. So, yeah, nothing has changed- you know what I mean in a sweet way.  The memories are just so vivid for me,” she said.

The Marteeny home stood until just days ago.

“Well, the memories that come up with the house is- I just kept seeing what it used to be. I would see Lee everywhere. But there was really no way to rebuild; it was just totally and utterly ruined.”

Like many others in Everglades City, Marteeny has been displaced.  She stayed with friends or in a FEMA trailer while waiting on FEMA funds, grants, and insurance money.

Mayor Howie Grimm says wsiting for insurance was a common experience this year. “Insurance is slower than FEMA…I mean you had to hire someone to fight for your own money that you’ve been paying into. Our city clerk Dottie just got her insurance money just a couple of weeks ago- I mean, we’re a year out and she had to literally fight for it,” Grimm said.

But, he says, slowing down the rebuilding process has forced some long range planning on the part of those wanting to rebuild.

“We still have about 25 homes on the ground right now that we’re waiting- that haven’t been worked on at all that we’re waiting on grant money to raise them.  To elevate them…and then fix them. We just hate to see people put a whole bunch of money in a home that’s on the ground and then it happens again, because it’s not IF we have another hurricane it’s when,” Grimm said.

For Lisa Marteeny, the slow recovery pace has helped her through a difficult year of new beginnings and treasured memories.

“You know the treasures are in my heart, you know where no moth and no rust can get because that’s what’s important. I thank god every day that I had Lee Marteeny in my world for as long as I did.  And I didn’t want to miss a molecule of this past year because for me it was a sacred time.  I wanted to honor my love for him,” Marteeney said. 

If you drive through the streets of Everglades City, the homes look good from the outside- but the ones with the windows wide open give a tell-tale sign that the interior isn’t fixed yet. Almost all of the restaurants are open, and at Island Café, there were only a couple of t-shirts indicating the wearer is a volunteer- still helping to rebuild.