EVERGLADES CITY, Fla. – On the door frame of Petra Gengenbach’s Right Choice supermarket from the 1960s, the words “Irma 2017” are scrawled next to a black line. Not far below, he pointed to the last remaining waterline days before.
The 55-year-old spent Friday cleaning up ruined food and mud from her shop after Hurricane Ian’s storm ravaged the crab fishing community, the last town before the southwest coast of Florida dissolves into the Everglades and mangrove islands.
While Ian did not cause the catastrophic damage seen further north, the surge of seawater tore off the first floors of homes, caused a fire at a two-generation seaplane business and sent the neighbors to fight to rescue each other in jon boats that advanced over a city turned into a lake.
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Gengenbach and others said the Everglades city hasn’t gotten much attention, but that also didn’t surprise many in this small but resilient community that has weathered everything from a decades-long reputation for bootlegging to a history of ‘devastating hurricane attacks.
“They never talk about the Everglades,” Gengenbach said, comparing the public and media attention after weather events to the city’s larger, more luxurious neighbors to the north.
On Friday, after the water had completely receded from the roads, but with the power still out, it was mostly friends and family helping to clear mud and carry belongings to the curb in the sweltering heat. Many neighbors and relatives have known each other for generations.
Betty Valdes, 41, who grew up in the town of Everglades and whose family runs a fishing boat, said that at the height of the surge, people could boat down most of the city streets
“It was solid water,” he said.
Most of Everglades City’s crab boats survived, insured by those who depended on them for their livelihood.
“We are not leaving. We’re fishermen,” said Yaneris Collins, 49, who cleaned mud from his yard and lamented that he was still fighting an insurance claim from Hurricane Irma in 2017.
Rick Collins, 72, a longtime fisherman, said the effect of the storm could increase the crab by stirring up the seabed. But it was a storm he didn’t expect to see so soon.
“When Hurricane Irma hit, my youngest grandson was 11 years old. I told him that when Hurricane Donna hit, I was 11, so it might be another 70 years before we have another one,” he said. to say. “But obviously not.”
Donna hit Everglades City in 1960 with 150 mph winds, causing devastation that helped move the Collier County seat from Everglades City to East Naples. But this was just one of the challenges the city would face over the decades.
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In the early 1980s, a series of drug busts dubbed Operation Everglades sent dozens of residents to prison and led to the seizure of half the city’s fishing fleet, according to the Naples Daily News.
A decade later, a ban on catching mullet with large nets slowed the city’s commercial fishing economy.
And here were more hurricanes: in 1992, Andrew. Wilma in 2005. Irma in 2017.
Today, Everglades City attracts tourists for its proximity to the 10,000 Islands and waterfront restaurants serving local crabs and groupers. Despite the appearance of more exclusive housing in recent years, it remains a tight-knit fishing village.
Residents said Ian’s rise was higher and faster than expected. Collins and her dog had to escape through the window, said Yaneris Collins, her daughter-in-law who lives upstairs.
It also shocked staff at a waterfront restaurant, where manager Donna Vanleeuwen and others were cleaning up and disposing of food and equipment Friday. Nearby, a fishing boat was underwater, probably sunk by the hurricane.
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“After Irma, it took a week before people came to help us,” Vanleeuwen said.
Nearby, Todd Johnson, 58, stood near the charred remains of a building. He said the rising water and electricity somehow caused a fire in the plane boat business started by his father after he stopped fishing. He also burned down a house where he grew up. Meanwhile, the wave damaged some of their boats.
He said insurance claims and rebuilding will likely be a struggle. But, like others here, I was used to it.
“We know the routine,” he said. – All too well.
Chris Kenning is a national news writer. Reach him at email@example.com and on Twitter @chris_kenning.