Six months after Hurricane Ian: Bonita Beach, creeping toward recovery
Six months after Hurricane Ian barreled onto Bonita Beach, the area is creeping toward recovery. There are residents that still can’t live in their homes, the tattered shells of older homes still dot the beach and chunks of concrete continue to wash up on shore. But there are signs of recovery. On March 4, Lee County opened Bonita Beach Park and all the beach accesses. Doc’s Beach House is welcoming clients in its parking lot with a limited menu from a food truck, and sand has been added to the north end of the island bringing back some of the beach in that area.
Lee County would not comment much on the work already done or the work that still needs to be completed. Instead, they gave a simple reply.
“Reopening Lee County’s beach parks and accesses safely has been and remains a priority for the Lee Board of County Commissioners,” said Kathy Loomis, deputy director of Lee County Parks & Recreation. “While much debris has been removed from the beach and near-shore areas, debris continues to wash onshore. Beach visitors should be cautious and wear beach shoes. Amenities, like boardwalks and restrooms, have not been repaired.”
“There is not a date yet for when the restrooms and pavilions will open,” added county spokesman Tim Engstrom. “As far as timing, there is a process that must be followed and we are in that process. It ensures the best use of taxpayer dollars. The process involves damage assessments and FEMA inspections before repair work can be completed. Lee County must follow the process to ensure federal reimbursement for repairs.”
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The county put together a data driven website called Lee County Ian Progress Report that updates the community on everything from damage assessment to park and beach updates. The report is available at ianprogress.leegov.com
Meanwhile residents and businesses are doing their best to return the beach area to the way it was before the storm.
Residents are now gathering by the parking lot area of Doc’s Beach House from 11 a.m. until sunset, where they purchase burgers, hot dogs, fish sandwiches and fries from a food truck. The restaurant is still mostly gutted and needs all new plumbing and walls, but they wanted to try and serve the public while they wait for repairs.
“We are testing this out,” said manager Curtis Van Linder. “We get a lot of people at sunset, but then they have to leave because we don’t have any lighting.”
Van Linder says he hopes the restaurant will be open in August.
Jacquie Goguen, manager of Bonita Jet Skis, says her business has been open since Thanksgiving, but operations are even better now that the parking lot is open. When they first opened, they had to limit their Jet Ski tours to the shoreline, because the back bays were too full of debris, but now that the waters are cleaner, they have expanded their tours.
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“We are open and we are ready for Spring Break and summer,” Goguen said.
It’s been a long haul for Tom Potter, co-owner of Potter Homes, who has built many of the newer homes along the beach. The houses he built were fine on the living levels, but damaged in the garage and storage areas. That has kept him busy replacing the breakaway walls and the floors and removing the piles of sand that swept in. He said material shortages have slowed the pace of rebuilding.
“We didn’t even have the doors and windows until two weeks ago,” Potter described. “Those that ordered in October are just getting them in now. It is a long process to get these doors and windows.”
Potter said they are still waiting on some solid wood stair components and are still working to find matching doors for some of the homes built more than five years ago. Still, he is hopeful that restorations will be finished soon.
“In the next couple of months, we will be in good shape with all the houses,” he concluded
Julie and Mike Walton were one of the first to have Potter fix their home.
“We are almost back to normal,” Julie Walton said. “We are in the painting stage, so we are just about done.”
But Walton says things are still not the same.
“The beach doesn't look the same,” she stressed. I don’t think it will ever be the same. Our backyard is down five feet from what it was. They took all our sand to the north end of the beach and they didn’t refurbish any of our beach. They told us they would clean it and bring it back, but we saw for months it has been going to the north end and they never dropped any off here at all, so it is a little depressing.”
Lee County officials say they only took sand from the roads to replenish the north end of the beach, but residents insist they also took sand by their homes.
Still, Walton is grateful that her house is in great condition.
“The house next to us had to be torn down,” she said. “It didn't make it.”
Walton is also better off than Dani Korson who lives in Bonita Beach & Tennis Club. None of the residents there will be allowed to return to their condos until at least August. The condos are all fine, but the storm destroyed the ground level and took out the plumbing, electricity, fire suppression system and the elevator. Korson said work is progressing slowly because the parts needed for repairs are on backorder.
“The pool and garden and pickleball courts won’t be ready until who knows when,” she added, saying work has not even started on those amenities.
Right after the hurricane temporary wiring was installed so the air conditioners could run in the units to prevent mold.
“That is what saved the units, having the air conditioning so there is no mold,” she said. “I feel more sorry for all the people who were damaged a lot more than I was.”
Back on the beach, a volunteer group that calls themselves the Bonita Beach Blue Army, scoops up the debris that is still washing on shore.
“I am here every day,” said Jim Carlson. “I have been coming since a few days after the storm.”
On Wednesday Carlson spotted a large chunk of concrete at the waterline and scooped it into a bucket with some other smaller pieces of debris.
“We are here to clean up to get things back to normal and get people back to the beach,” Carlson said.
Judy Sabourin said she had led the group to pressure the county to focus more on Bonita Beach.
“I saw how Fort Myers Beach was getting cleaned up and getting stuff done, but nothing was getting done here,” Sabourin began.
She emailed county commissioner, Ray Sandelli, asking for a dumpster to put the debris they were collecting and for the parking lot to open.
“I had been getting nothing but roadblocks,” she described. “But the next day the dumpster was here and the following day the parking lot opened.”
Sabourin said their efforts are now being hampered by red tide, but they are still determined to keep cleaning and restoring the beach.
Potter says the beach is slowly coming back. He doesn’t think many of the older homes, that are mostly splintered shells, can be saved. They will come down and newer, more modern, more hurricane resistant houses will take their place, He is already about to demolish one and do a rebuild. Potter believes many of those houses have not been demolished yet because the owners are still working out insurance claims.
He’s encouraged by the big strides that have been made and by the little things, like the homeowners who are starting to landscape.
“It is nice to see the vibrant colors coming back in now,” he described. “It had been so gray and brown, but the colors now are just such an encouraging thing.”
This article originally appeared on Naples Daily News: Six months after Hurricane Ian: Bonita Beach, creeping toward recovery