FORT MYERS, Fla. – Hurricane Ian has come and gone but it still could deliver prolonged blows to the local economy, walloping small businesses heavily dependent on tourists and seasonal residents.
Scenes of destruction in southwestern Florida will keep many winter tourists and snowbirds away while tasking local residents with rebuilding for months or more, said Michael Maguire, a manager for a group of family-owned restaurants, including a couple on hard-hit Fort Myers Beach.
“It will not be the same,” Maguire said, standing outside the Pinchers seafood restaurant in the Fisherman's Wharf area of Fort Myers. “It could be months, it could be years. We don't know. People that live in the area are not going to be in shape to go to restaurants."
Ferocious gusts ripped off roofs, collapsed walls and jolted buildings off their foundations. Flooding — including tidal surges of more than a dozen feet (3.6 meters) — inundated shops, bars and restaurants. The heavily touristed Fisherman’s Wharf turned into a dusty and surreal scene, with boats capsized far from their usual moorings. The rancid smell of hardening muck still fills the air.
As winter approaches, business would have been picking up. Bars, restaurants and the many mom-and-pop shops that line San Carlos Boulevard, the thoroughfare into Fort Myers Beach, would usually begin filling. The start of snow crab season in mid-October would usher in brisker business.
Tourists lift the region's economy during winter as do snowbirds with vacation homes to escape the chill in the upper Midwest, the Northeast and Canada. “That's where our business comes from," Maguire said.
Even before the storm, there were mixed economic signs for Fort Myers and the rest of Lee County, where U.S. Census Bureau figures show more than 60% of the businesses have less than five employees.
The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity reported that the region's unemployment had continued to fall since last summer, as the economy rebounded from COVID-19 — with the biggest growth in the leisure and hospitality industries. In Fort Myers, the sector added 2,700 new jobs in May over the same month the year before.
However, the number of airport passengers in southwest Florida had already fallen in July 2022, slumping 13% from a year before, according to an economic study of the region by Florida Gulf Coast University. Tourist tax revenues were down 2% for the region, with Lee County down 4%. The study partly blames inflation for that downturn.
With a family to support, including two young children, fisherman Jake Luke can't afford being jobless.
“Right now, we’re selling stuff, selling stuff we don’t need. I'm doing odd jobs — 50 bucks here, a 100 hundred bucks there,” he said. “We’re about eight days behind on rent and I've been thinking about calling family for a loan.”
It was still the slow season when the hurricane hit, but the busy times for seafood restaurants and fishing excursions were just ahead. “When the season comes, I’d be working five or six days a week — but it doesn’t look like we’ll have a season this year. It means I’m going to be losing $50,000 a year" in earnings.
Some business owners told Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during a roundtable discussion Wednesday that they could get their businesses up and running within several weeks if they had access to generators and equipment to replace what was damaged from flooding. Robbie Roepstorff, president of locally based Edison National Bank, said small businesses needed access to cash so they could make payroll, otherwise their workers would move elsewhere.
The Republican governor warned that recovery efforts faced the challenge of a global supply chain crisis but was optimistic obstacles could be surmounted. Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency, was planning to run ads touting the recovery efforts, he said.
“I think people are going to want to come," DeSantis said. “Not today, but in the not-so-distant future."
Lee County's population is almost 788,000 people. It's difficult to say exactly how much snowbirds boost the population. But a substitute measurement — gross retail sales — historically jumps by almost a third at the season's height in January compared to the dog days of late summer.
But many snowbirds likely won't return this year because of damage to their vacation homes or because amenities — like shops and restaurants — won't have yet fully recovered.
James Kratzke, who has a house on Fort Myers Beach, said water nearly reached the ceiling in his vacation home. Family members were on their way to inspect the damage. He was at home in Wisconsin when the storm hit and doesn't know when he'll return.
Across the area, crews have been demolishing buildings teetering on foundations. Homeowners tried to salvage what they could from their soaked homes — racing against time, mold and mildew.
Some business owners could do nothing, their livelihoods torn asunder, including many restaurants. GoFundMe campaigns have sprung up to help restaurant workers who lost their jobs.
“The business here is over, but we will rebuild somewhere else," said Ashley Galassi, a bartender at Tina’s, a watering hole at Fisherman’s Wharf. “This will probably all be demolished, I’m sure. There isn’t much left of the foundation.”
Galassi said she thinks tourists “won't be back any time soon" because “it's total destruction all around us.” But she's certain the community will rebuild.
"We’ll all stick together," Galassi said. "That’s what it’s all about."
Associated Press writer Mike Schneider contributed to this report from Orlando, Florida.