Hurricane waves breached Florida Rep, and she filmed it all. Now the theater is recovering

Amy Massari stood hip-deep in stormwater as Hurricane Ian roared outside Florida Repertory Theatre in downtown Fort Myers.

And she kept filming.

Through a door window, she watched as Florida Rep’s parking lot turn into a murky, brackish ocean. Four-foot waves from the Caloosahatchee River pounded the hallway door by the theater’s box office.

Inside, that cold water reached Massari’s waist.

And still, she kept filming.

Maybe she should have put down her cellphone and retreated to her fourth-floor apartment above the theater, she admits. But this was too important not to capture on video.

“I just felt like it needed to be documented,” the Florida Rep stage manager says. “The destruction needed to be seen, because it was so unbelievable.”

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Was she scared?

Not really, she says. Just sad.

“I just felt sadness for everything happening around me,” she says.

After the hurricane, Florida Rep picks up the pieces

Later, after the stormwaters receded, that sadness continued. The dirty floodwater had filled many of the rooms inside Florida Rep and other businesses in the surrounding “Bradford Block” building.

Furniture and desks were soggy. The theater’s 6-foot-deep orchestra pit overflowed with muddy brown water. Part of the roof had been ripped off the building.

“I was just heartbroken,” Massari says. “Stunned. Numb. All of those things.”

But now, more than a week later, Massari’s colleagues are picking up the pieces — literally — and working hard to restore Florida Rep and its 107-year-old Arcade Theatre space.

It could take weeks, says artistic director Greg Longenhagen. But they’re committed to reopening as soon as possible.

“We’re working hard to make it happen,” Longenhagen says. “I’m very hopeful that we’re going to be able to get back in, but it’s gonna be a few weeks before we can bring people into the space safely.”

Hurricane Ian dumped floodwater and mud inside Florida Rep's historic Arcade Theatre. Now the theater company is cleaning up the mess.
Hurricane Ian dumped floodwater and mud inside Florida Rep's historic Arcade Theatre. Now the theater company is cleaning up the mess.

It will be expensive, he admits. A fundraiser has been started for Florida Rep fans to help (see below).

Meanwhile, Florida Rep is taking its current show on the road. The Billie Holiday musical “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” — which had been playing in Florida Rep’s smaller ArtStage Studio Theatre — will move to Fort Myers’ Alliance for the Arts from Oct. 14-28. Then, if everything works out, it might return to the ArtStage later.

Back at Florida Rep, the theater is alive with activity. Drywall and carpet are being ripped out. Fans roar everywhere to dry out the remaining floodwater. Debris is being piled up on the sidewalks outside.

The theater has hired a restoration company to help remove the water and try to stop mold from spreading. They’re even using a fog machine to send sanitizing fog into hard-to-reach places.

It could've been a lot worse, Longenhagen says.

Thanks to a sloped floor and an orchestra pit that took in much of the floodwater in the Arcade Theatre, the water only reached the first row of chairs in that historic building, a former vaudeville house and movie theater.

The stage, itself, didn’t get very wet, Longenhagen says. Now they’re waiting to see if it’ll still be safe to use.

“We got water underneath,” he says, “but I think we’re going to be OK.”

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A shocking sight

Longenhagen admits it was hard seeing Florida Rep after the water receded. Mud and water got everywhere — the theater lobby, the brand-new rehearsal space and kitchen (both ruined), the offices.

“Every single storefront on the first floor, every office space — including the Arcade and the ArtStage Studio — were inundated with water,” Longenhagen says. “It filled the hallway of the Arcade with a black, sludge-like mud.

“You couldn’t even see the floor. It was so thick with mud. … That mud was basically everywhere, and still wet. Still very slick and wet.”

Hurricane Ian dumped floodwater and mud inside Florida Rep's historic Arcade Theatre and the surrounding building. Now the theater company is cleaning up the mess.
Hurricane Ian dumped floodwater and mud inside Florida Rep's historic Arcade Theatre and the surrounding building. Now the theater company is cleaning up the mess.

Florida Rep looks a lot better now than it did a week ago, though. Employees have been working hard to clear out soggy furniture and debris, tear up flooring, rip out wet drywall and do whatever else needs doing.

“I could not be more proud or more in awe of the dedication of our team, who have been working relentlessly,” Longenhagen says. “They have been working tirelessly.”

He admits he was stunned by what he saw after Hurricane Ian departed, but he tried not to show that in front of his staff.

“When you’re a leader, you can’t be downtrodden or disheartened,” he says, “because you’ve got a whole team around you that, you know, you want to stay positive for. I think that’s an important part of being a leader.”

But yeah, it was an emotional sight.

“It’s hard,” he says. “It’s hard to look at. … It was shocking to see.”

But Longenhagen, ever-optimistic, swears that the show will go on.

Eventually.

“We’ll be back,” he says. “It’s gonna be a hard road back, but we’ve started it.”

The view out Florida Rep's window as Hurricane Ian flooded downtown Fort Myers.
The view out Florida Rep's window as Hurricane Ian flooded downtown Fort Myers.

Massari says she’s glad the theater will survive after what she saw through that hallway window.

“It was surreal,” she says. “It was pretty intense. It was just unbelievable to look out into that parking lot.”

She wishes she were there to help her colleagues clean up, but she’d already been scheduled to fly home to Pennsylvania.

She’s feeling a little “survivor’s guilt,” she says. But she knows the theater remains in good hands.

“They’re making great progress,” she says. “They’ve got a lot of great people.”

To donate to Florida Rep’s recovery effort, call the box office at 239-332-4488 or visit tickets.floridarep.org/TheatreManager/1/login&donation.

Connect with this reporter: Charles Runnells is an arts and entertainment reporter for The News-Press and the Naples Daily News. Email him at crunnells@gannett.com or connect on Facebook (facebook.com/charles.runnells.7), Twitter (@charlesrunnells) and Instagram (@crunnells1).

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Hurricane Ian: Florida Repertory Theatre damaged by muddy flood water