“What Hurricane Ian was not able to wash away, though, is our resilience." Those are the words of hope from one tourism official in Lee County along Florida's Gulf Coast. It will take every bit of that resilience to restore the region's once-thriving tourism trade.
Hurricane Ian wreaked destruction on numerous destinations in Florida and Cuba last month with its devastating aftermath expected to be felt for months or even years. Many of them have avoided the worst of it. Lee County is one Florida destination that took the hurricane at its most intense level. The community is conducting search and rescue and damage assessments, but it is already clear that its tourism sector will face a tough road to recovery.
Forming in the Caribbean Sea, the tropical storm evolved into a Category 4 hurricane as it made landfall in the province of Pinar del Rio in Western Cuba on September 27.
By September 28, Hurricane Ian made landfall again as a Category 4 in Lee County, which is on the coast of Southwest Florida, with maximum sustained winds of 150 miles per hour. “The primary impact area really was in Lee County,” said Geoff Luebkemann, an emergency official with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association (FRLA). “Fort Myers Beach was kind of the ground zero for the impact.”
Lee County is home to 760,000 people and includes Sanibel Island, Pine Island and 13 other barrier islands off the Florida coast. Fort Myers is the county seat. Every year Lee attracts five million visitors and $3 billion in spending, according to the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau (VCB). The county’s beaches are one its most popular attractions.
Lee County’s hotels were swamped by heavy rain, strong winds and flooding. “The hotels in the area, we do have a number where the buildings are still sound and habitable, but there is no power or water,” said FRLA’s Luebkemann. “There are other buildings that were close to water that either sustained catastrophic water damage, storm surgence flooding and/or wind damage.”
During the week of the hurricane, Fort Myer hotel market’s room inventory fell 45 percent, according to STR. About 6,000 rooms were removed from the inventory.
Many short-term vacation rental properties on the islands were wiped away. “On Sanibel, anything that was ground level, like our personal home, there was over four foot of water surge inside, at a minimum,” said Ryan E Block, a Sannibel resident and vice president of Dream Vacation Rentals, which includes 130 vacation rentals on Sanibel Island and Captiva isIland.“There are complexes that have been there like the Waterside Inn, Shalimar Cottages & Motel, Island Inn, the Seaside Inn, ground level cottages … they are gone.”
Several portions of the Sanibel Causeway, a series of bridges that connects the mainland to Sanibel Island, and the Matlacha Pass Bridge, which connects Pine Island to the mainland, have been destroyed, according to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
“The big problem for us is we have a mainline bridge from Fort Myers that would connect to Sanibel,” said Block. “The bridge sections are there, but the causeway to connect the island are wiped out.” Residents have to use boats to get in and out of the islands, according to Block.
As Hurricane Ian moved from inland the southwest to the northeast, its intensity dropped. On September 29, Ian was downgraded to a tropical storm on September 29 as it made its way through Florida, according to the National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service. Some areas, like Lake Wales, in central Florida experienced extreme rainfall. Orlando experienced historic flooding.
The death total currently stands at over 100 people, making it the deadliest storm to hit Florida since 1935. The estimated total damage will amount to between $28 billion and $47 billion for all the commercial and residential properties in Florida, making it the costliest hurricane since 1992.
Visit Tampa, Visit Orlando and other major destinations are welcoming visitors. In an update on the hurricane situation, Visit St. Augustine reported many of its restaurants, stores and attractions reopened by September 30.
Tourism to Lee County, however, remains paused. “Visitors are asked to put travel plans to the region on hold for the time being. Given the extent of the devastation, there is no timeline yet for a resumption of tourism,” LCVB said in an official statement.
Federal, state and local officials as well as tourism industry stakeholders are still surveying and assessing the full impact of the hurricane. “It’ll be at least a week or two before we have a good view of the damage assessment on the long term of the inventory of that market,” said FRLA’s Luebkemann. Communities are focused on search and rescue right now.
At the moment, the road to recovery for Lee County looks challenging. “The impediment to normalcy is the physical infrastructure, literally building things,” said FRLA’s Luebkemann. As long as Sanibel and Matlacha Pass Bridge remains unusable, tourism to the area can’t resume.
Some vacation rentals are exiting the tourism market. “There’s not going to be a tourism sector on these islands,” said Dream Vacation Rentals’ Block. “Right now we are transitioning to be more of a property manager instead of just doing the rentals, being the owners’ boots on the ground. Ripping everything out and then rebuilding. That’s what we are going to transition into. Certainly not as fruitful as the vacation industry, but hopefully keep us there and provide a bridge to the other side.”
Another long term challenge will be the return of tourism sector employees. Before the hurricane, one out of every five people worked in tourism in Lee County, according to LCVB. Florida was already undergoing a labor shortage when the hurricane hit, according to FRLA’s Luebkemann. The loss of employees, many of whom lost their homes in addition to work, will make the recovery difficult.
“Best case scenario those folk stay there and find alternative employment as part of the response and rebuild effort,” said Luebkemann. “Those folk are in the market and pivot back to hospitality.”
Lee County’s tourism stakeholders are confident they will weather through this catastrophe. “Our homes, our communities, our livelihoods have taken a devastating blow,” said Lee County Commissioner District 2 and Chairman of the Lee County Tourist Development Council Cecil Pendergrass. “What Hurricane Ian was not able to wash away, though, is our resilience.”
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Photo credit: Officials in Lee County, home to Ft. Myers (pictured) and other tourist destinations, are struggling to recover after Hurricane Ian. felixmizioznikov / Getty Images