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As Everglades City recovers from another hurricane, are there lessons to be learned by Florida?

EC drywall.jpg
Jenny Staletovich
Damaged drywall and other material was stacked outside a flooded Everglades City house five days after Hurricane Ian made landfall near Fort Myers Beach.

Five days after Hurricane Ian bulldozed past Florida’s southwest coast on its way to a devastating landfall near Fort Myers, the hum of pressure cleaners filled the air in the small, stone crabbing community of Everglades City.

“The first step is to get the first layer of mud out,” Todd Dahlke shouted above a noisy motor as he washed away mud the color of concrete from the one-room shop where he books kayak tours.

“Now, everybody knows stuff like that,” he said, referring to 2017’s Hurricane Irma. “That's the first thing you do. Get the mud out.”

Next door, it’s a lesson scribbled on the wall in the Right Choice Supermarket. Just inside, where workers mop out the darkened store, lines in marker along the doorway remind shoppers of the town’s duels with hurricanes.

Above seven feet, a black line labeled “Donna 1960” marks flooding during a storm that destroyed half the town’s buildings a half century ago. Another line indicates a foot of flooding carried inside by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. In just the last five years, two more lines were added: Irma, which pushed nearly shoulder-high water down the aisles and now Ian, which brought more than three feet of water inside.

EC Righ Choice Hurricane Wall.jpg
Jenny Staletovich
Flood levels from hurricanes are marked just inside the doorway of the Right Choice Supermarket in Everglades City. Hurricane Irma brought waste-high water into the store. Ian waters fell about six inches lower.

Located on the remote, ragged coast of Southwest Florida. Everglades City has a reputation for being a rough and tumble place.

At the turn of the century, plume hunters braved the confusing maze of islands that shelter the mainland and nearly wiped out wading birds. In the 1980s, local smugglers turned the town into a gateway for marijuana flowing north from Colombia. In the last decade, a full-time population of retirees, crabbers, fishing guides, naturalists and citizens — still mostly wary of outsiders — have held down the fort.

But after a century of precarious survival, there’s a worsening threat: climate change and the powerful forces from hurricanes that make it harder to live just two feet above sea level.

Less than a week after Ian passed with winds howling at 120 mph, the matter cast a cloud over a surprisingly fall-like, dry sunny day.

“I’ve kind of had enough,” said Tina Collins, who spent five years struggling to rebuild her house across from the Barron River elevated on stilts. She and her family moved in just two weeks before Ian. Many of their belongings, including unused furniture for the new house, were still being stored in a ground-level garage that flooded.

Since Irma hit, destroyed homes had to be rebuilt at higher levels, first at 100-year flood levels, then three-feet higher when Collier County boosted the minimum in 2019.

Everglades City School, with students from kindergarten through 12th grade and also serves as a community hub, got a flood wall with a hydraulic gate and pump. The town is also building a new wastewater treatment plant after Irma swamped the old plant and spread contaminated flood waters across town that sickened some residents.

This storm, residents knew to move their cars to higher ground. Most headed to Carnestown, the inland intersection where the Tamiami Trail once ended.

This happens often enough that you don't want to think about it, but you've got to do something about it or just not live here
Trudy Hooten, Everglades City resident

Those fixes helped lessen, but didn’t prevent another round of suffering.

Damaged refrigerators and washing machines line some streets. Mud cakes the tennis court. The blessing of the fleet, held every year at the start of stone crab season, was once again postponed.

Residents say they feel a reckoning, but also a resoluteness.

“This happens often enough that you don't want to think about it, but you've got to do something about it or just not live here,” Trudy Hooten said after carrying her groceries up a flight of concrete steps that Ian swept a few inches from her front door landing. The storm toppled another set of concrete stairs.

Hooten, who lives in Lakeland, elevated her yellow weekend house on 10-foot high concrete pilings after Irma filled the inside with mud. Second homes don’t qualify for federal assistance, which meant the work cost “lots and lots of money,” she said.

Driving up and down the streets of the town that barely covers over a square mile, piles of couches, mattresses and wrecked belongings serve as a measure of the changes since Irma. Houses elevated after the storm have little or no piles. High piles mark many of the houses not elevated.

“It’s all in the size of the pile,” said Tony Pernas, a retired botanist at the Big Cypress National Preserve who sits on the town council. Driving around town, he pointed out the houses newly elevated since Irma. The town had hoped to elevate more, he said, but promised grant money fell through.

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Jenny Staletovich
Debris piled up outside some ground-level flooded homes in Everglades City after Ian.

That left many homeowners to struggle with financing, complicated permitting and hard-to-find contractors. Insurance didn’t pay off the mortgage on her family’s damaged house, Collins said. That left her and her husband, a stone crabber, in financial limbo.

“You can't take a mortgage out on a home you plan to demolish and you can't take a mortgage out on the lot, as a vacant lot, where there's a structure on it,” she said. “I never thought it would take this long to rebuild.”

But she feels lucky. Her father-in-law’s house, which is not elevated, flooded again.

That means an insurance crisis already brewing across Florida will likely become far worse after Ian, as property owners seek billions in claims. Global reinsurance companies, which insure the state's smaller insurance companies, are already tightening the reins amid the growing risk.

Even before Ian, six Florida insurance companies had become insolvent this year, said Zac Taylor, an urban planner and professor at Delft University of Technology who studies climate financing. Taylor grew up in a waterfront town in Hillsborough County.

"Reinsurance companies are saying, 'Hey, we can't take on any more risk from Florida,'" he said. "It's a global and interconnected market and they can only pay out losses so much and for so long before they have to either charge more for their their capital or retreat."

Because Florida limits how much insurers can raise rates to cover losses, they need — and are required — to obtain reinsurance. Florida also has its own re-insurance fund, which it increased by $2 billion this year because of the warnings from global re-insurance companies.

"Florida has long been a sort of very exceptional place of trying to experiment with the right balance of state tools and public risk sharing," he said. "There is a public financial institutional system that can handle these losses. But there's a question about when you you use down the money in the piggy bank, what happens if a storm comes soon? "

Residents weigh up the risks

That difficulty has left some residents to weigh the pros and cons and endure the risks.

Homes built more than a century ago by the Collier Company, which constructed the Tamiami Trail connecting Everglades City to the east coast, line the town’s block-long historic district on the banks of the Barron River. At one time, the company owned more land than any other in the state.

Steve and Patty Huff’s house sits under a towering royal poinciana, built from tough Dade County heart pine as tight as a ship. Without drywall, Patty Huff said, the house dries out quickly after a storm. That’s not to underestimate the power of the mud.

After Irma carried about 20 inches inside, she felt overwhelmed and uncharacteristically depressed. Putting the house back together took about two years. Ian only brought about six inches.

“So we were very, very fortunate with Ian. But other people, whose homes were a little bit lower than ours, just got devastated,” she said.

With mere inches making the difference, Huff understands the risks. Ian is the first time in 28 years the couple did not evacuate for a major hurricane. Lessons from Irma helped. She moved things she values higher, like books on a lower shelf. The couple also bought an industrial-sized shed with a second-floor apartment inland on higher ground to house the skiffs her husband uses as a guide.

“This time we were better prepared,” she said.

EC mud.jpg
Jenny Staletovich
While Ian's storm surge pushed ashore less mud than Irma, it still covered ground level buildings and the municipal picnic shelter, shown here.

Higher tides and water levels she’s seen at her riverfront house have her worried. But at 76, she’s still not planning on raising the house.

“We know that we're taking our chances by doing this. And we know a lot of people, after Irma, they either took down their small historic home and and built new homes or they had it raised up,” she said. “If I was younger, I'd probably raise it up.”

That speaks to the difficulty in setting policies and planning for climate change in communities where there are harder-to-measure factors, like how individually prepared its residents may be. There's also a matter of scale. The population of Everglades City has remained about 400 over the last decade.

The town’s mayor, Howie Grimm, understands Everglades City narrowly dodged another catastrophic storm. He has a cousin on Pine Island whose house survived, but he doesn’t expect to have power for 12 months. This time around, Grimm said he too was better prepared. He knew which agencies and politics to call first for help.

“Because I was only mayor for five days before Irma,” he said.

He points to the elevated houses as proof that the town can do things to avoid flooding. The school flood wall also kept the school dry. The Ten Thousand Islands also offer a measure of protection. But he’s still worried.

“Donna was 59 years before, so I said well, we got another 59 years. And I lied,” he said. “It came a little quicker.” 

So rather than wait to learn lessons, like the tougher building codes that followed Andrew and Irma, Grimm said steps need to be taken now.

“What happened after Andrew made a huge difference,” he said. “Why wait till something bad happens?”

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.