Bay County recovery shows the future of Lee County after Ian

Reporter: Gail Levy
Published: Updated:

Bay County leaders might be some of the few people who understand what it’s like to have a monster hurricane slam into their community.

They experienced a lof of the things that Southwest Florida experienced during Ian when Category 5 Hurricane Michael hit their coast.

Within weeks of Hurricane Ian, Bay County officials traveled to Lee County to see what the hurricane did.

The Sanibel Causeway was gone. The same thing happened to Highway 98, which runs through Mexico Beach.

The only way off the beach was blanketed by trees.

When Hurricane Michael ripped through the panhandle in 2018, Griff Griffitts was a Bay County commissioner.

Now, he serves as a representative in the Florida House.

“You, you learn from your mistakes, and you try to teach the people that are going through it after you, what the pitfalls were, what we did, right what we did wrong,” Griffitts said.

His first tip: Make a record of everything.

“The people in southwest Florida started paying attention,” he said. ” Make sure every meeting is documented, whether handwritten notes or audio notes, because a lot of times people forget what they say.

“I think Michael had been largely forgotten.”

After Hurricane Michael hit, the national media was there for a week, and then they were gone.

“We don’t have a very large population where Hurricane Michael hit,” Griffitts said. “The eight affected counties is probably less than a million people. Where, you know, Lee, Charlotte, Hillsborough, there’s millions of people down there.”

While the population is different, Bay County Manager Bob Majka said to look at the debris.

“Everywhere you look, trees were down,” Majka said. “Most of the debris field was the result of trees coming down. So kind of different than what happened in South Florida with Ian, where you had what I would call more structural damage.”

A lot of the structural damage came from the massive storm surge.

In some places, it was from 15 to 18 feet.

“These large vessels and ships and boats that are all on your streets. And you got to notify all these people before you can touch them, you know, you would think you just push them out of the way and open doors or open the road, but you can’t. So that was the difference,” said Bay County Commissioner Robert Carroll.

In Bay County, they got rid of all of the debris in 10 months.

In Southwest Florida, it’s unclear when all the debris, boats and cars submerged because of Ian will be hauled away.

More than four years later, Bay County is still in recovery mode.

Griffitts said the first lesson is “it’s a very long process.”

“Recovery is not quick. It takes years. Two, you got to have a lot of patience,” he added.

It’s about helping each other everyone come together, come to the table and help each other out,” Carroll said.

After Michael, Bay County created a recovery task force.

They had a representative from every city, the school district, the county and other community leaders.

Together they devised a plan and then asked FEMA for reimbursement. That’s the kind of advice Bay County passed on to Lee County.

Copyright ©2024 Fort Myers Broadcasting. All rights reserved.

This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written consent.