Lessons learned from Hurricane Michael help Southwest Florida rebuild after Ian

Reporter: Gail Levy
Published: Updated:

No two storms are ever the same, but the emotions evoked can hurt in all the same ways. Hurricane Ian barreled ashore in Southwest Florida as a dangerous, high-end Category 4 storm. Six months later, we’ve come a long way.

WINK News Reporter Gail Levy worked as a reporter in Panama City when Hurricane Michael made landfall in 2018, and she traveled back there to get a snapshot of recovery.

Ryan Michaels, a meteorologist at WJHG, helped guide the community as they watched Michael make its way through the Gulf of Mexico, “An unprecedented storm system heading towards the panhandle, something we’ve never seen before, Category 4.”

Gail Levy worked alongside him then, reporting from the field, “Hurricane Michael hasn’t hit quite yet, but we’re already feeling some of the effects in Franklin County.”

That was October 10, 2018, the day Michael made landfall near Mexico Beach. Originally labeled a Category 4 storm, it was later upgraded to a Category 5.

On September 28, 2022, Gail once again reported from the field. This time, as Hurricane Ian impacted Southwest Florida, “You can see the trees really blowing around and those sheets of rain just really coming down.”

What we saw in the panhandle was different than what we saw and heard here, but what happened in 2018 gave us here in Southwest Florida a little more perspective on what was to come.

WJHG had to get creative to keep the community informed, “We have limited function in our control room, so this is how we have to show videos to you.” The station was knocked off the air after a piece of the roof lifted off the building.

WINK News went off the air after water flooded the station.

Just like many people experienced, communication became a challenge. Donna Bell, Gail’s former boss, was the News Director at WJHG then and now. She knows the struggle of making a simple phone call, “It was really hard not having any cell phone service. Because Verizon went down, we didn’t have our Verizon phones, which all of our news phones were, for 10 days. That was terrifying as a news director. It was terrifying because I had no way to get in touch with you for a very long time.”

After Michael, Gail and her photojournalist knew they couldn’t get back to the station from their location in Franklin County. They were located just east of ground zero for Michael. Most of the seaside roads back to Panama City were broken up, similar to how we saw the bridges to Sanibel and Pine Island wash away during Hurricane Ian.

One major difference between the two monstrous storms is the physical roadblocks. In the panhandle, there were limited alternative routes because of too many down trees. During Ian, there were boats in the middle of the roads.

We couldn’t even tell you what Sanibel looked like in the hours after Ian because we couldn’t get there – unless it was by boat.

The one place we could get to on foot was Fort Myers Beach.

The silver lining after both storms comes from the reunions and the togetherness we all feel and the strength of our community to rebuild stronger and better together.

Nearly five years after Hurricane Michael, panhandle officials said the area is about 50% recovered.

Six months after Hurricane Ian, a majority of the debris is gone, a majority of Downtown Fort Myers is open, and rebuilding is underway.

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