Rebuilding remains 2 years after Hurricane Irma swamps SWFL

Tuesday marks two years since Hurricane Irma swept into Southwest Florida leaving counties in devastation. Several areas remain in the rebuilding process, leaving some locals scarred from the storm. But, significant progress has been made and as one resilient woman told WINK News, “God reminds us that there’s a rainbow after every storm.”

Marco Island took a direct hit from Irma. The progress it has made shows disasters turn the ordinary into the invaluable. Among the people who survived the storm was Henry Hill, who was hunkered down on the island.

“What I used was the mailbox out in front of the house for how high the water came up,” Hill said. Then, Hill used his phone, calling us to turn his home into a lookout for thousands.

At the time, Hill was living across the beach in a ground floor condominium. His place did not have storm shutters. From the desperation brought by Irma, Hill said he knows the power of a picture.

“So that people have not only my words,” Hill said. “It showed them what the water was on the streets on Marco.”

When Irma hit, live streams and Hill’s Facebook feed gave evacuees a window into their homes. He told us he had around 55 friends; then, he saw a quick increase to 700.

“People picked it up all over the country including a bunch of my former students,” said Hill as he chuckles. “‘Mr. Hill, you’re on TV!'”

Now, two years later, hurricane preparation holds more weight than it once did.

“During the height of the hurricane, once the winds hit 40 mph, sustained,” Hill said, “if you have a heart attack, you’re on your own.”

Both Hill and his wife decide early about evacuating to make sure the invaluable people in your life stay safe.

“She said a category three is her limit – I would probably stay longer,” said Hill as he laughs. “But she might leave.”

“Be prepared at all times”

A community destroyed by Hurricane Irma two years ago on Tuesday is still rebuilding. While Everglades City has made progress, there is still much work to be done.

Tommy Owen, a server at Island Cafe in Everglades City, said the knee-high water was the thing that stood out the most when Irma struck his city.

Directly after the Irma, Island Cafe had to be gutted, all the seats had to be removed and mud swept out of the floors. Since the storm, they’ve put up new paneling and revamped the whole place.

Much of Everglades City had the same problems. However, despite the damage, Connie Barker, who rode out the storm in the city, said the town is making a comeback. “Pantry’s up full force,” Barker said. “The thrift store is open. Our restaurants are open again.” But there is still work to be done.

The town’s playground, which once fed volunteers and helped victims apply for financial aid, is not what it used to be. Barker is trying to raise money, intending to collect $95,000. She said houses also need to be repaired, replaced and lifted off the ground, so the storm surge is not an issue when the next hurricane strikes.

Right now, they are keeping a close eye on the tropics as Irma taught them a big lesson.

“Be prepared at all times,” Baker said.

“Preparation,” Owen said. “Absolutely.”

“God reminds us that there’s a rainbow after every storm”

While a lot has changed since Hurricane Irma struck southern Collier County, two years later the recovery continues.

Lynnette Morris, who lives on Chokoloskee Island, said the memory of the story stays fresh in her mind today.

“It was scary,” Morris said. “It was exciting. It was almost like an adventure.”

During Irma, Morris ventured out with her family on a boat as the storm surge overtook the island and the church she led at the time, Chokoloskee Family Church of God. It is something she hopes she never has to live through again.

The water receded in a matter of hours, but the rebuilding continues to this day. Morris told WINK News the change is remarkable.

“We went from complete devastation,” Morris said, “to a complete rebuild now.”

Irma was ferocious. Part of its destruction was a bridge that is a vital link connecting Everglades City and Chokoloskee.

While subtle signs from the storm remain, such as roofing peeled back by the wind at the Smallwood Store, the piles of debris that once lined the city streets are gone.

Chokoloskee Family Church of God also has a new leader, Jesse Wilson.

“People still talk about it,” Pastor Wilson said. “It’s been two years.”

The rebuilding is not over. Right now, they are trying to raise $200,000 for a rebuilding project. They want to elevate it 8’ft should the storm surge come rushing back to the island.

“We want our children to have a place,” Wilson said, “where they can have their own children’s church again.”

Although the storm tore buildings apart, they said it ultimately brought the community closer together, as they pray a storm like Irma never comes back.

“It’s going to be fine,” Wilson said. “We’re going to make it.”

“The community has bounced back,” Morris said. “God reminds us that there’s a rainbow after every storm.”

Reporter:Anika Henanger
Writer:Michael Mora
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