One week ago, Fort Myers Beach and Southwest Florida were in the crosshairs of Super Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 monster with 185-mile-per-hour sustained winds that devastated the Bahamas and threatened the entire East Coast of the United States. Fortunately for our area, it stalled in the Atlantic Ocean, roughly 150 miles from Fort Myers Beach, before making an agonizingly slow northern turn away from our region. The call was close enough, however, that many aspects of the Fort Myers Beach community initiated hurricane preparation measures, to be on the safe side.
FMB Fire Department
“The Fort Myers Beach Fire Department has a thorough plan in place for situations like Hurricane Dorian,” said Chief Matthew Love. “To be honest, we prepare a little more and a little sooner than everyone else, because our #1 goal is the safety of our community. We purchase all our trucks, facilities and equipment with taxpayer dollars and that makes it an even greater priority to protect those assets. While we never reached the point where we put up our hurricane shutters, we did reinforce our supplies and arranged for off-island locations for our firefighters. During a crisis, we actually merge operations with the Iona-McGregor Fire District and began to coordinate with the Town, Lee County and Lee County Sheriff’s Office.”
Chief Love stated that the FMB Fire Department did not stand down from Hurricane Dorian until late Monday and early Tuesday. “With the storm so close to Fort Myers Beach, we just did not feel comfortable, even though weather forecasts predicted it would no longer come our way, so we continued to meet twice a day, because the storm just would not turn north, and that was eerie! When you see what Dorian ultimately did to the Bahamas, I am glad we erred on the side of caution.”
While Dorian spared Southwest Florida, the FMB Fire Department did deploy some assets and prepared to make others available. “We sent three of our frontline personnel who are specialists in Urban Search & Rescue with other elements of the local Urban Task Force 6 to the Miami area. We also set up a special ambulance to join the Lee County Task Force, but they ultimately did not need it. Finally, one of our firefighters is a Coast Guard member and he got called up into duty for deployment.”
Chief Love describes Dorian “as absolutely a terrific practice run! I want to remind our community to never let down our guard because look what happened to the Bahamas that is not that far from us, so if it can happen there, it absolutely can happen here! This was also the first time we put into practice the lessons learned two years ago from Hurricane Irma, so that was invaluable. What I take away from Dorian is that each and every one of these hurricanes is unique in its own particular way, and there is nothing black-&-white about them, so each provides their own lessons. Dorian was a crucial reminder to get to know your neighbors, so we can be in the best position to help each other out and show again what a great community Fort Myers Beach is! Leadership only gets tested in a crisis, not when everything works perfectly, so this was an opportunity to learn how we can all better take care of one another.”
Estero Boulevard Projects
Kaye Molnar of Cella Molnar & Associates, spokesperson for the reFRESH Estero Boulevard Projects, stated that construction crews took the appropriate measures in preparing for Hurricane Dorian. “Both the Estero Boulevard and Waterline crews began work a week ago Thursday to secure work zones by removing any unnecessary items and debris, as well as relocating port-o-lets and loose materials to the fenced storage yard at Lovers Key State Park. Crews reduced by two-thirds the number of construction barrels and contractors secured those that remained with extra weight or sandbags. Workers removed all A-frame or mobile stand-up signs, or secured them with heavy equipment. We positioned large equipment on the island, were it necessary to assist with post-storm cleanup efforts. While some of our crews undertook those measures, others continued to work on the construction projects throughout the island.
“Like everyone else, we are grateful Hurricane Dorian did not hit Fort Myers Beach and Southwest Florida, and work on the projects is back to normal. The forecast for this upcoming week calls for dry weather, so it should be good for paving!”
Town of Fort Myers Beach
“With Dorian looking like it might strike our island, the Town began its hurricane preparations, as well as communicating with Lee County,” said Fort Myers Beach Mayor Anita Cereceda. “We had sand bags at Town Hall, and secured the Mound House and Bay Oaks Recreational Center, along with all other Town assets, including securing and backing up all of our computers and servers, so Town Manager Roger Hernstadt and the Town staff did an amazing job! It was really hectic at the end of last week, but it is actually good to go through an exercise like this periodically, but the fantastic news for the Town is it ended up being nothing more than an excellent practice run, where you prepare for the worst and hope for the best, and in this case, we received the best!”
Alison Giesen, the Town’s Director of Cultural Resources, Mound House Director and Interim Parks & Recreation Director, said, “We did complete all of our hurricane preparations for the Mound House, Bay Oaks and Community Pool, though we did not need to close any of those at any time. It was a good exercise to go through the prep, to double check everything, and the process went very well.”
When the track of Dorian was still uncertain, Mayor Cereceda did call for an Emergency Town Council Meeting in Town Hall on Sunday morning, September 1, to declare a Local State of Emergency. “That would have been strictly a procedural necessity,” she explained, “to start the clock running for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. As I explained in the notice and on Facebook, the action was not to scare anyone. By late Saturday, however, I canceled it when it seemed fairly certain Dorian would avoid Fort Myers Beach, but I must admit that when the storm still had yet to turn north throughout Sunday into early Monday, there were times I thought, ‘Oh Lord!’”
In addition to being Mayor, Cereceda owns three Fort Myers Beach retail establishments. For her, “it was a great business weekend, because people came over from Florida’s East Coast. The Labor Day Weekend traditionally is always a great East Coast rally over here, with people traveling from Fort Lauderdale, Miami, West Palm Beach and quite a few other places, so I cross my fingers that Jacki Liszak at the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce will back me up and that business was good as well for our hotels and restaurants.”
Mayor Cereceda grew up in Florida, “so I accept that we still know so little about hurricanes – you are walking the beach one day, then the next you are stocking up on gas and water! One person told me jokingly that if Dorian lingered any longer off the East Coast, they would go through their hurricane supplies and have to restock! In all seriousness, you might consider donating any leftover hurricane supplies to charity organizations sending these items to the Bahamas, as ‘There But For The Grace of God Go Us!’ We live on a barrier island that is little more than a 7-mile strip of land, so we are fragile and vulnerable, and it is moments like this that gives me a renewed appreciation for our Town and how everyone checks up on everyone else.”
She appreciated the perspective a close call like Dorian provides the beach community. “Not only is it good every so often to allow us to practice our hurricane preparations, but you suddenly see the little things we take for granted, like the glorious sunsets we had on Monday and Tuesday night, so there are silver linings in the clouds, though it is hard to enjoy those knowing what the Bahamas look like today or what happened to Mexico Beach last year, so be grateful that, this time, we are blessed!”
FMB Chamber of Commerce
“While we are still accumulating numbers, my sense is that Labor Day Holiday Weekend business was down quite a bit,” offered Jacki Liszak, Executive Director of the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce. “Dorian definitely affected even the number of people who were out-&-about, and it certainly affected hotel reservations. First, people who had rooms for the Holiday Weekend either exercised early departures or canceled them in waves, then an initial wave of potential East Coast evacuees booked them, but when the hurricane stalled out with predictions to turn north, they canceled those in waves again! Right at the end, as Dorian went up the East Coast, a few people booked rooms and came over, but certainly nowhere near the initial levels or what we expect for a holiday weekend.”
Jacki stated that even those who did book rooms kept their wallets to themselves. “Once they got here and felt safe, it seemed like they stayed in their rooms, glued to The Weather Channel! They didn’t venture out to bars or restaurants, because they were unsure what kind of damages they would return to, so they treated this more like an evacuation than a vacation. Not even locals seemed to come out on Labor Day, even though by then Fort Myers Beach was out of the hurricane projection cone. Not only were the streets, bars and restaurants quiet, but so was the Back Bay, where normally Labor Day turns that into a boat parade. It is entirely possible that by Labor Day, folks were just worn out by ‘Hurricane Fatigue,’ as we were all watching Dorian for a week by that time, and that becomes exhausting, hoping it does not devastate your community. All-in-all, it was a very strange weekend!”
She pointed out that “Stokes Marine will be making several boat trips to the Bahamas to drop off desperately-needed hurricane relief supplies, and the FMB Chamber is a drop-off site. They especially request water, canned goods and manual can openers, paper towels and toilet paper, diapers and feminine hygiene products, premixed baby formula, mosquito spray and sunscreen, soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes, and flashlights and batteries. Please drop these off to us at 2450 Estero Boulevard and we will get them to Stokes Marine. Let’s pay it forward to those poor folks in the Bahamas, in gratitude that Dorian did not devastate our home.”
Pete’s Time Out
John Lallo, owner of Pete’s Time Out in Times Square, echoed Jacki’s comments. “Dorian was seriously an unpredictable terrible scary storm, sharing the Fort Myers Beach Latitude at 185 miles-per-hour for 36 straight hours. East Coasters were making reservations, then cancelling them just as quick, due to the uncertainty of its intended path. It is tough to compare our numbers this year to an average Labor Day holiday weekend, because we have not had one now for three years, with last year being the Red Tide and Blue-Green Algae water crisis, and in 2017, Hurricane Irma predictions came out over the Labor Day Weekend, so we suffered economically huge on the beach once again, for the third year in a row, due to no fault of our own.
“Sometimes I wonder if it is all worth it, but I do love my staff and customers, so we keep plugging away. Our prayers truly go out to the victims and their families in the Bahamas, as it is unreal what God’s fury has tested these people with. All-in-all, we will be fine, as there are others who are suffering so much more than us!”
By Gary Mooney