Many of you closely follow what’s happening on Fort Myers Beach, especially if you live or work there. Decisions made now and in the near future about how to rebuild will impact everyone with a stake on this island.
“I’m sorry for being so emotional,” says Fort Myers Beach resident William Dean Simmons.
It isn’t easy for him to talk about Hurricane Ian. Simmons says the experience was traumatizing.
“That was scary, and to see my neighbor floating in this just been insane,” says Simmons.
Julie and David Fite evacuated but were not spared the pain of returning to a disaster site. Their home was gutted, and everything they owned — was in piles of trash.
Wiping a tear from her eye, Julie says, “It was our dream. We were living it. We were actually living it, weren’t we?”
WINK News investigative reporter Celine McArthur met Kevin Paradiso as he was digging through debris in his front yard, searching for anything salvageable, including his son’s toys.
Paradiso: “I need that. That’s solid! That’s going to make him happy.”
Paradiso: “He doesn’t have any toys left. Thank you for helping me find this. This is going home.”
As they all work to rebuild their own lives, they wonder what will happen to their community.
“Just complete disorganized chaos. I mean, like, this has just been insane,” says Simmons. “What are people doing? Nobody’s giving any information, like the general lack of information is like our biggest, biggest problem.”
McArthur: “Do you want to rebuild? Do you want to stay?”
Paradiso: “Yes, ma’am. There’s nowhere else for us. My wife, she’s 44-years-old. She was born and raised right here in this house.”
“I think there’s going to be a lot of properties that are going to be swept up by those who have enough money to invest,” says David Fite. “We’re losing part of the charm of Fort Myers Beach, but evolution is evolution.”
And that evolution has begun. Cleanup is taking place, but what is the bigger picture? We introduce you to a man with a plan.
Joe Orlandini is a luxury home builder on Fort Myers Beach. He’s lived there for more than 20 years and rode out the storm with his two children in one of his new builds.
Orlandini recently toured the seven-mile stretch of devastation with us and offered builder insight into what it will take to make it right by identifying and explaining what went wrong.
The first clue is in the debris. He says this didn’t come from the newer construction that’s built to the most recent codes.
“Those houses took the storm and were able to weather right through it,” says Orlandini.
Cottages didn’t. They were swept away from their foundations.
“When the wind picked up, as they were floating, it pushed them through the canal,” says Orlandini.
They ultimately landed near Estero Boulevard on someone else’s property.
McArthur: “When you guys first saw this in your front yard, what did you think?”
Doris Kassim: “Oh my God!”
“If these were all new structures, and the water could go in and come out, and all we were dealing with was vegetation, yard things and lawn chairs, barbeques and garbage cans, we wouldn’t really have a big story,” says Orlandini.
The story moving forward will be how Fort Myers Beach rebuilds to current code, making structures that will last, so the huge piles of debris will be a thing of the past.
“Your house sitting in your property can’t be the burden of somebody else’s house, on their property, or somebody else’s business on their property, where you have something that does come off or something that that becomes a projectile or something that floats away,” says Orlandini.
The charm of this area isn’t lost on this builder, who regrets the community didn’t collectively do more to protect landmark sites.
“I love the character of the old houses, but we’ve lost it because we didn’t do that extra step to take care of them. And we needed to,” says Orlandini. “Why didn’t we put concrete cause columns under some of the commercial buildings that we had on the beachfront that we could have saved.”
Orlandini thinks the community can develop a plan to engineer the character of the old homes and buildings into the new master plan. He says there’s talk on the island about creating an architectural review committee to make that happen.
“I support that. I agree with it. It goes against a little bit of what my building style may be today. But I support it, the look of what the town probably should be. Because it’s the character of who we are,” says Orlandini.
For all of this to happen, he says city leaders need to come up with a concrete plan—now. Building supplies are in short supply, and the surge in demand will make it even harder to get the essentials.
“The major one that I foresee us running into is going to be the electrical. So, panels and meters are going to be difficult,” says Orlandini.
Homes and buildings won’t be built back with wood, so they’ll also need a lot of concrete and a way to get it on the island—fast. Right now, traffic is worse than at the height of the season.
“When a cement truck is all the way in town where they come from, they have to drive down here, and we have to be able to logistically get it here because of the nature of how we mix cement. There’s a timeframe, and so it’s there’s a clock ticking. It’s not like plywood, where you just got to bring it down a truck, and you plop it in the front yard,” says Orlandini.
And he believes the biggest slowdown may come from the Fort Myers Beach permit process.
“Rebuilding a lot of the infrastructure is going to be the biggest part,” says Orlandini.
And as more power and services are restored, people won’t want to wait months to start fixing their homes and businesses.
“They have to come up with a system and a way to simplify it so that people can put these things back together and inhabit these houses again, and live in them,” says Orlandini. “So, we have a community again because right now, we’re inhabitable.”
He says the community also needs to help families who have lived here for generations stay on the island. As one man who is invested in the bigger plan and prosperity of Fort Myers Beach, he’s helping where he can. That includes rebuilding Kevin Paradiso’s family home.
“I happen to have the resources and the capability and the manpower to help them put that house back together,” says Orlandini. “I want them to remain being my neighbors and want them to be back in that home and live there and have that life again.”
“Joe’s beyond good. And I can’t say enough about that gentleman,” says Paradiso. “A good human. That’s what I keep telling everybody. You’re meeting good humans right now. It’s there’s bad ones, but there’s really good humans, and they’re coming out of the woodwork.”
We will follow the Paradiso renovation, Orlandini’s plans for Fort Myers Beach, and the leadership’s efforts to move this community forward.
You can reach out to Céline about this story via email: firstname.lastname@example.org