Isaac Impacts Beach
Hurricane Isaac may not have inflicted much physical harm on Fort Myers Beach, but his impacts are still being felt by the community. A drive down Estero Boulevard on Tuesday, after the storm had passed and was sitting just off the Louisiana coast, revealed empty parking lots, boarded up rental homes and light traffic. On the beach, there were no signs of vacationers, no parasails flying, no watercraft of any kind in the four to five foot seas.
Businesses from Time Square to Santini Plaza were feeling the effects of the tropical storm on their bottom lines. Michelle Thronebury, Store Manager at Mango Bay Beach & Surf Club in Time Square, explained that the loss of business due to the bad weather not only affects her bottom line, but the loss of wages hurts her employees, as well. Mango Bay closed early on Sunday and opened late on Monday, giving employees unplanned days off. Other Time Square businesses were closed both days.
Beach Pierside Grill was closed for business on Sunday and Monday. Lunch traffic at the beachfront eatery Tuesday was light, as well. Employees at Plaka said that Monday was okay, but the Greek restaurant was closed up tightly with all the patio furniture stored safely inside on Sunday. There were no patrons seated at lunchtime on Tuesday, though the sun had just reappeared and a few people could be seen sunbathing near the pier.
Down the street at Yucatan Beach Stand, Manager Darlene Russell said that business was good over the weekend. "We benefitted from everybody else closing on Sunday. We were prepared,” said Russell. Yucatan did close two hours early that night due to Tropical Storm Isaac, but only after serving a "better than average” number of patrons at the restaurant and bar. "There were a lot of people out drinking that night,” she added.
Matanzas Inn Restaurant was drying out Tuesday morning after taking in three to four inches of saltwater due to a rise in the bay that was still evident. The restaurant was closed both Sunday and Monday causing a loss in revenue. The inn also saw a number of weekend cancellations due to the storm. The same was true at Lighthouse Resort Inn and Suites across Crescent Street and at the Dolphin Inn on the island's south end.
At Red Coconut RV Park, there were mostly empty pads along the beachfront on Tuesday. Travelers along Estero Boulevard could see the crashing waves through the trees on their way past the typically crowded beachfront resort. The parking lots at Lani Kai Resort were equally deserted on Tuesday.
Employees at Fish Tale Marina said they did not expect to see business pick up until the end of the week. With rough seas and choppy bay waters, no boats or kayaks were being rented, no Eco Tours were planned and no fishing charters had been booked in days. They complained that even bait sales were down as there is no one fishing the beaches, bays or bridges. That is a sustained loss of income for a storm that merely grazed the coastline, but whose effects are still being felt locally.
"We lost an entire week of revenues,” said Chris Weber, owner of Mid-Island Watersports. His booths and equipment had to be removed from the beach by 5 p.m. Saturday, so there were no jet ski rentals, parasailing or other watersports available beginning that afternoon. Weber didn't plan to move equipment back onto the beach until Thursday when tides and wind are predicted to subside and allow for his employees to get back to work. "I feel bad for my employees because they had to take an unnecessary week off and suffer lost wages,” he added. Weber spent two of his days off taking advantage of the high surf along the beach. He took his two boys and their friends surfing on Monday and Tuesday.
"We were lucky that the storm did not do a lot of physical damage,” said Bud Nocera, President of the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce. "It provided us with an opportunity to test our disaster plans. Every business on the beach should have a disaster plan. We encourage them to visit floridadisaster.org and take the necessary 20-25 minutes to build their plan. It could mean the difference between opening or remaining closed after the next disaster.” While Nocera could not place a dollar amount on the impact to the local economy, he felt that Tropical Storm Isaac provided a dress rehearsal of sorts for area businesses. "Isaac was more of a wake-up call,” he added. "As much as we don't want to think about hurricanes or disasters affecting our businesses, we need to plan for them and be prepared.”
Town Manager Terry Stewart echoed those same sentiments, saying, "This was a great exercise for us.” He explained how the Town of Fort Myers Beach works closely with the Lee County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to ensure public safety. "Town staff has a myriad of tasks to complete when we enact our emergency preparedness plan. We move some of our equipment off island, like our computer servers.” Stewart explained that it took town staff about two hours to load that equipment in the communications trailer and relocate it to the Lee County EOC. "That took our computers down for about two hours,” he said, "But our website is hosted on a different server, so we never lost our means of communicating with the public through the town's website.”
Community Development Director Walter Fluegel and Planning Coordinator Josh Overmyer manned the Lee County EOC to ensure a smooth operation between town and county officials. "The county EOC is the decision making organ,” said Stewart. "They communicate with us before issuing an evacuation order and then again before rescinding it.” He added that he was glad to see so many island residents adhered to that order on Sunday.
"Some folks don't realize that our entire island is in the ‘A Flood Zone,' so we are the first to be evacuated.” Stewart explained that Fort Myers Beach cannot host any shelters for that reason. Likewise, town staff is relocated off island so that they can continue to conduct the town's business. "We have an agreement with a local hotel to house personnel and keep them out of harm's way.”
While a full assessment of damage has been limited during daylight hours because of high tides and rough surf, Stewart said there was some damage to the handicap ramp at Newton Park. He has authorized staff to maximize daylight hours and work until dark to complete assessments and beach cleanup. "We ask for the public to be patient and understanding with us as we work diligently to get the beach ready for the upcoming holiday weekend,” Stewart added. "Fortunately, the storm took a fortuitous turn to the West when it did. We always want the public to pay attention and to heed evacuation orders.”
According to the Lee County Emergency Operations Center, which remained at full activation, the three opened shelters were closed by 11 a.m. Tuesday and special needs evacuees were being returned to their homes. Florida Power and Light was responding to spotty outages in the area, but a look at their online map revealed very few residents without power as of Tuesday morning.
Sal Pedone at Sun Hardware in Santini Plaza said that his business is one that benefitted from the tropical storm, selling generators, screws and other items to diligent shoppers on Sunday. "I'll say this about our island, we have plenty of people who take these matters seriously and do their best to secure their property,” he said. Pedone went on to recount how many storms he's lived through as a long-time island resident and the high water rise especially near the Matanzas Bridge.
An intrepid men's group from a Tampa church wasn't going to let a tropical storm keep them away from the Retreat Center at Beach Baptist, though they had considered cancelling their weekend getaway due to Isaac. The group from Idlewild Baptist checked out Sunday just before weather conditions deteriorated. "People don't consider all of the small things, like a men's group cancelling their visit, which can bring financial discomfort even to a small non-profit, like a church,” said Pastor Shawn Critser. His congregation met for breakfast on Sunday and a quick Bible study before going home to brace for storm impacts. Many of them were unaware of the mandatory evacuation that had been ordered earlier that morning.
As of 11 a.m. Wednesday, Hurricane Isaac was still pounding the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Some effects were also being felt in the western-most panhandle of Florida. Businesses along Fort Myers Beach are still feeling the impacts, even though the storm is hundreds of miles away.