While historically powerful Hurricane Matthew threatened millions of people along the east coast last week, its primary effect on Southwest Florida was full hotels, overflowing bars and restaurants, and an increase in pirates on Fort Myers Beach!
Florida Governor Rick Scott modified the old real estate mantra of location by emphasizing to the 1.5 million citizens in the potential storm track to “evacuate, evacuate, evacuate” and east coast residents took him at his word. To aid this cause, Governor Scott suspended Alligator Alley tolls to ease traffic throughout the emergency.
By late Thursday afternoon, October 6, there was not a vacant hotel room on Fort Myers Beach or in Lee County, causing two hurricane shelters to open to handle the overflow. Alico Arena housed roughly 250 evacuees, while pet-friendly Estero Recreation Center had approximately 100 people and 40 animals. Most at Alico and Estero did not intend to spend their time at a shelter but could not find an available hotel room. Overall, the State reported just under 6,000 total people in 70 statewide shelters.
New Pirates in Town!
Bud Nocera, President of the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce, said, “the beach was extremely busy last weekend. Times Square did fantastic with a constant flow of visitors and questions at our information booth, and a tremendous turnout for the Pirate Festival. Our hotels were full Thursday and Friday with east coast evacuees. The weekend was a mixed bag, as some left Saturday to check on their homes, but others stayed through Sunday.”
The annual Pirate Fest received an unexpected boost in attendance and vendors. “Tybee Island off the Georgia coast has a nice Pirate Festival on the Columbus Day holiday weekend, the same as ours, but unfortunately cancelled it due to the impending storm,” said Nocera. “As a result, we saw a lot of new pirates in town this weekend! We at the last minute accommodated several vendors from that event, even though we did not have a lot of room, by maximizing all our possible space.” Tybee Island sustained 96 mile-per-hour winds and over 8 inches of rain.
Bud estimates that Pirate Fest had a record turnout on Saturday, “as our weather was perfect. Sunday was our first day in months with low humidity and a comfortable breeze; our initial indication that Fall is on the horizon.” The Chamber raised over $10,000 in donations to continue to sponsor quality fun family events like the Pirate Festival.
Visitors packed Fort Myers Beach Friday evening, with Allison, a bartender at the Lani Kai Island Resort, describing that night as “more than double a typical one this time of year.” The Downtown Fort Myers entertainment district overflowed with locals and storm refugees, with Max at Los Cabos Cantina calling business “an in-season crowd on an out-of-season weekend.”
Matthew wobbled at the last moment to the east from its original storm track projection, staying 20 to 30 miles offshore and sparing the east coast of Florida catastrophic damage. Forecasts called for it to come ashore as a Category 4 hurricane with winds exceeding 140 miles-per-hour and an accompanying 10 foot or more storm surge, but the slight movement east resulted in mostly minor damage like flooded streets, flattened trees, and blown-down signs and awnings. It eventually made landfall early Saturday morning, northeast of Charleston, South Carolina.
Matthew killed close to one thousand people, primarily in Haiti, as well as 37 in the continental United States: 12 in Florida, 18 in North Carolina, 3 in Georgia and South Carolina, and 1 in Virginia. Florida deaths include carbon monoxide poisoning, falling frees, and downed electric line execution. President Barack Obama declared a State of Emergency for Florida, as he did in Georgia, North and South Carolina.
Officials may never know the actual death toll in Haiti, as remote villages quickly bury their dead. The hurricane affected over 1.3 million of Haiti’s 10.5 million citizens, with over 750,000 badly in need of aid. Most alarming are new cholera outbreaks transmitted by tainted water. President Obama encouraged Americans to make charitable contributions through reputable agencies to Haiti for humanitarian and rebuilding assistance.
Red Tide & Price Gouging
Hurricane Matthew pushed red tide through the Gulf of Mexico into the southern beaches of our region, killing thousands of fish. Red tide is the bloom of toxic-producing algae that stuns the nervous system of fish, and can cause respiratory issues and skin irritation in people.
The South Water Florida Management District weathered Matthew well since most rain fell north and east of Lake Okeechobee. Water drained into Lake Okeechobee for the last week, causing increased discharges into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers to ensure that the lake stays 16 feet above sea level or less to protect the 143-mile Herbert Hoover Dike, one of the most at-risk water control systems in the United States. SFWMD was lowering water releases to both coasts by early this week.
The Florida Attorney General’s Office received over 2,000 complaints of price gouging, from gasoline as high as $5.99-a-gallon to $1 water going for $30 a bottle and hotel rooms increasing from less than $60 to over $150. Florida experienced a slight gasoline shortage, causing prices to increase statewide on average by 6 cents a gallon, with Southwest Florida rising 7 cents. Fuel here, however, averages $2.14 a gallon, still below the statewide figure of $2.21 and the national amount of $2.25.