Cape Coral reflects on Hurricane Irma's impact one year later

Posted: Sep 04, 2018 10:44 AM -04:00 Updated:

A mulch pile several inches thick sits flattened in a vacant lot on Pine Island Road in Cape Coral.

Homeowners are still walking into their backyard and see their seawalls in disrepair.

City officials and citizens who survived Hurricane Irma are reflecting on what happened a year after the storm.

“The most important take away is that in Cape Coral no one perished. During the event, candidly, there's not much you can do. You have to ride it out. The big challenge then became the debris removal,” said City Manager John Szerlag.

Szerlag said the storm and the cleanup that followed took a toll on the city’s budget.

“Irma cost us about $17 million or $18 million and I believe about 75 percent of that is FEMA reimbursable, however, we're on a waiting list if you will. First is Texas, and then Florida. We're not expecting our money anytime soon. I hope to get it within the next year or two," Szerlag said.

Cape Coral had an emergency reserve fund, but Szerlag said only around $4 million was in that.

The city had to pull money from other funds and departments to cover the cost of the storm to keep the city’s services functioning.

In the height of a crisis, Szerlag said along with money problems, the city simultaneously was dealing with a resource shortage when it came to cleaning up storm debris.

"The debris that we had, being that we're 122 square miles, was phenomenal. What complicated matters is that we had contractors for debris removal under contract. They broke the contract because they could make more money going to Texas and so we had to scramble to get other contractors in. It was primarily a manpower issue and an equipment issue," Szerlag said.

Szerlag believes a possible way to avoid that scramble for future a storm is possibly writing into contracts monetary penalties for contractors and vendors who desert the city during a crisis.

"If someone has a contract with us, that they'll fulfill it as opposed to abandoning the area and going someplace else to make more money," Szerlag said.

Szerlag said he wishes debris clean up could’ve been done quicker, but is confident they did the best job possible in the timeframe they promised residents.

A debris staging site on Pine Island Road and Andalusia Boulevard sits right in the middle of a residential and commercial neighborhood.

No debris is still there, but a thick layer of mulch remains.

The Bentley family lives next to that spot and remembers the images of the growing site in the days and weeks after Irma hit.

"It started out small, just a few piles, and then it, it grew to an actual mound. It almost looked like a garbage site of nothing but debris," said Kelly Bentley.

"That hit home that, to realize how much stuff got damaged," said James Bentley.

The Bentley family did not evacuate for Irma.

They rode out the storm, lost power for days, and watched their neighbors’ roofs succumb to the rain and winds.

“It was terrible to realize how much damage there actually was. We're still driving up and down the street seeing the blue tarps on people's homes,” Kelly Bentley said.

If another storm comes, the Bentley family plans to evacuate -- a move Cape Coral fire chief Ryan Lamb advises every resident do.

"It's not a matter of if we're going to have another hurricane; it’s a matter of when," Lamb said.

Lamb said before Irma hit, the city’s emergency management teams working with Lee County were not equipped to open a large number of shelters.

"Sheltering is a problem. In Cape Coral there's only one Red Cross approved shelter which is Island Coast High School, which is again staffed and run by the count. We do our best to support that, but again that is the only approved shelter because of Cape Coral's low elevation,” Lamb said.

Cape Coral does not foresee it being able to provide a large number of shelters in the future due to the city’s landscape and sea level.

"That is something that we're trying to work through for grant funding and other pieces, but because of Cape Coral's low elevation again, there's not a real good option here for us," Lamb said.

The city manager also said seawall repairs will not be a responsibility of the city.

There is no way the municipality can front the cost for private property seawall demolition, removal, or repair.

"The reality is that a seawall can be viewed upon as a vertical driveway and it’s the responsibility of the property owner if there is any damage. With the 400 miles of canals we have, if the city were to take that responsibility, which we do not have, it would be tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in terms of liability if there were to be another event," Szerlag said.

Copyright 2018 WBBH/WZVN (Waterman Broadcasting). All rights reserved.

Tropical Tracker

NBC2 Tropical Tracker