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How some business owners in Southwest Florida are recovering, almost two months after Hurricane Ian

 Six buildings on the site of Peace River Charters, a small business owned by Arcadia resident Zac Varner, was roof-deep in flooding after Hurricane Ian.
Courtesy of Tiffany Murphy
Six buildings on the site of Peace River Charters, a small business owned by Arcadia resident Zac Varner, was roof-deep in flooding after Hurricane Ian.

After Hurricane Ian hit the southwest Florida in late September, Zac "Captain" Varner had to wait seven days to see if his business, Peace River Charters, was swallowed by the storm.

Rain and winds from Hurricane Ian caused record-breaking flooding along the Peace River that put all six buildings at his Arcadia-based headquarters under water.

"Complete devastation," he said. "Naturally, because there's so many components to my business, it was a lot of thought and planning on where to start first."

Stationed on two sites along the Peace River in DeSoto County, his crew specializes in various river and land tours by airboat, horseback and “swamp buggy,” a marsh-traversing vehicle similar to a monster truck. The company, which has been in business for ten years, also offers cabin rentals, a bait-and-tackle shop and an alligator exhibit.

“We’re kind of a one-stop outdoor destination shop for southwest Florida,” he said.

 Before Hurricane Ian made landfall, Varner and his crew had to evacuate Dale, a 13-foot-long and 1,200 pound alligator, to higher ground. He’s one of eleven alligators that’s part of the on-site exhibit at Peace River Charters in Arcadia, Florida.
Courtesy of Zac Varner
Before Hurricane Ian made landfall, Varner and his crew had to evacuate Dale, a 13-foot-long and 1,200 pound alligator, to higher ground. He’s one of eleven alligators that’s part of the on-site exhibit at Peace River Charters in Arcadia, Florida.

Varner said that November typically marks the beginning of their busy season that lasts through April. Typically, this contributes to a dip in unemployment in Florida's southwest counties.

But during a labor force update on Friday, the chief of workforce statistics and economic research for the Department of Economic Opportunity said he "expects those numbers to go the other way."

"This is the first month the data will show the impacts of Hurricane Ian," said Jimmy Heckman.

Statewide data show unemployment increased to 2.7% in October, up from 2.5% in September.

Meanwhile, the labor force overall continues to grow, with Heckman saying that record-breaking migration to the state of Florida is a likely contributor to consistent labor force increases in recent months.

READ MORE: Florida's jobless rate climbs after Hurricane Ian

Varner said he generally employs around 20 full-time workers. With facilities damaged and river tours halted until further notice, his entire crew has transitioned to part-time work, and he’s had to get creative to keep them on payroll.

“So the month of October, a lot of our work was outside of the river tours,” he said.

"We don't have the facilities right now. We don't have our bait and tackle shop. We don't have our alligator exhibits open yet. It's having to manage hours — and naturally — trying to give people as much work as we can."

Varner negotiated with DeSoto County and other partners to contract odd jobs for his crew, like debris removal and maintenance on solar panel fields.

He said the Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan Program, activated by Gov. Ron DeSantis to help small businesses recover, kept his business afloat through October. He's also banking on a physical disaster loan, distributed by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), to come through.

Varner said the prospect of rebuilding after a hurricane is made more grim by the volatile costs of materials and labor since the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's definitely a big concern," he said. "It's hard to really get a number down on what these costs are going to be because everything is constantly fluctuating."

According to SBA data, over $900 million in physical disaster and economic injury loans have been approved for small business owners recovering from Ian statewide. Business owners in counties from the greater Tampa Bay region account for over $119 million in lending, with 114 recipients in DeSoto County at just over $6 million in special disaster loans.

"I do feel like we're resilient as a company, and we've had to overcome some natural disasters and pandemics before," Varner said. "It is definitely is a challenge for our employees — you go from being a well-oiled machine to dealing with controlled chaos."

Gabriella Paul covers the stories of people living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region for WUSF. She's also a Report for America corps member. Here’s how you can share your story with her.

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Gabriella Paul