Help with promises of more came with President Joe Biden’s Wednesday afternoon visit to hurricane-ravaged Southwest Florida.
“The federal government will cover — is covering every cost — 100% of the cost to clear the massive debris left in the wake of the hurricane,” Biden said, prior to arriving. “It all needs to be cleared out for communities to begin the hard work of trying to get back on their feet.”
Rebuilding is at the core of Biden’s efforts as Southwest Floridians cope with the loss of life, widespread damage and continuing outages.
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Fatalities in Lee and Collier counties
By Wednesday afternoon, the state had officially recorded 46 fatalities in Lee and five in Collier associated with Ian, and that number could go up. Insurers have reported more than $2 billion in estimated insured losses and more than 282,000 Florida claims, which will continue to grow. Estimates have put it as high as $40 billion so far.
Now a week after Ian’s brutal assault, almost 200,000 customers woke up again Wednesday without power in Lee and Collier counties, but that keeps improving. Lee was down to 38% with no electricity from Tuesday afternoon’s 46%, while Collier dropped to 4.5% from 8%. Utility companies estimate that most will have it back by the weekend, except for those in the most devastated areas.
Biden has approved more than $70 million for Florida residents to jump start recovery efforts, and FEMA Disaster Survivor Assistance Teams have converged on Southwest Florida. Nearly 4,000 FEMA and federal staff are supporting Ian response efforts statewide.
Many of them are here to assist with federal disaster assistance inquiries and answer questions about types of federal assistance available. A FEMA Disaster Recovery Center officially opened Wednesday at the Lakes Regional Library, 15290 Bass Road, Fort Myers, with hours from 9 am to 6 pm daily. Applications can also be made at www.disasterassistance.gov, by calling 800-621-FEMA or using the FEMA App.
Under Biden’s disaster declaration, Small Business Administration loans are now available to businesses, homeowners, renters and nonprofit organizations in Lee and Collier by applying at sba.gov. For assistance, email [email protected] or call 800-659-2955.
In the interim, businesses can apply for a state Emergency Bridge Loan of up to $50,000 intended to bridge the gap between now and when funds from an SBA or commercial loan are received. The deadline to apply is Dec. 2, unless available funds are already spent for the short-term, zero-interest program, said Department of Economic Opportunity Secretary Dane Eagle.
“Small business owners in need of assistance can now apply for the Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan Program at www.FloridaJobs.org/EBL,” said Eagle, of Cape Coral.
Biden also launched Operation Blue Roof in Lee, a free service involving placement of fiber-reinforced sheeting to cover damaged roofs until arrangements can be made for permanent repairs, allowing residents to remain in their homes until work begins. Homeowners can sign up online at blueroof.us or call 1-888-ROOF-BLU (1-888-766-3258.
Federal, state and local teams rescue more than 3,600
More than 3,600 have been rescued by federal, state and local teams including the US Coast Guard, the National Guard and other agencies.
The Collier County Sheriff’s Office reported that its telecommunications center fielded 5,294 calls, about five times the normal amount, on the day Ian struck. The following day, workers fielded 4,291 – more than the 4,038 total the center received in 2017, the day after getting hammered by Irma, which was a direct hit on the county.
And initially frustrated rescuers could do nothing about it, unable to go assist until after winds dropped below tropical storm level, just like in Lee, which had a “number of calls” from people stranded by high water as flooding moved from the coast to points inland.
“It left families suffering the agony of knowing that loved ones cling to life in areas that cannot yet be reached by rescue crews because it is too dangerous to save them,” Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais said.
One of the first recorded Lee deaths was when a witness saw a 75-year-old man with heart disease collapse. Emergency medical services were delayed getting to him, according to a medical examiner’s report. In Southwest Florida, the youngest victim in state data was 51, with the oldest 95.
Another who died was Mitch Pacyna after a storm surge engulfed his beachfront home near the 100 block of Hercules Drive. He was known as the “Mayor of Fort Myers Beach” by neighbors, friends and even strangers, who regularly gathered in his converted carport that served as a personal bar.
“If you saw that door open, you knew he was down there,” beach resident Michael Yost said. “That meant everybody can come in. And he meant everybody.”
Pacyna’s final moments paint a horrifying picture, as he narrated what unfolded near his home. In a video he posted that Wednesday afternoon on Facebook, images show furniture from nearby homes and businesses being washed away by the tide.
And then using several exclamation points, he noted his bar floating away, along with the generator.
Moments later, Mitch Pacyna’s next post would set the tone for his frantic last moments.
“OK, WE’RE TERRIFIED,” Mitch Pacyna typed in all-caps, his last post before Ian claimed his life. His wife survived.
Survivors are certainly dealing with challenges including unexpected obstructions for long-time experienced relief agencies trying to deliver supplies to Pine Island, which has only been accessible by boats due to bridge damage.
Later Wednesday, the state announced that a temporary road fix to get drivers to Pine Island had been completed. That might make it easier for deliveries to come in.
Twice Tuesday, Lee Sheriff Carmine Marceno’s team turned back volunteers from running supplies to the island and threatened them with arrest, said United Cajun Navy executive director Jennifer Leatherman-Toby. Others have reported similar encounters, and it has happened more than a dozen times to Leatherman-Toby’s crews in the last two days.
“We are usually welcomed. (This) is what we do. We should be able to work with the local law enforcement and local government like we have in Alabama, Louisiana, Houston,” said Leatherman-Toby, who has reached out to officials to have a working relationship to no avail. “We have been turned away at every corner we’ve come around.”
Asked questions about what was happening, the sheriff’s office issued a statement. “We are not prohibiting donations. Supplies are being coordinated by other agencies such as FEMA.”
Cajun Navy and another relief group, Operation Airdrop, were coordinating Wednesday afternoon on making another attempt at delivering critically needed products to island residents including diapers, baby formula, toiletries and other goods.
Within about 24 hours, more than 15 pallets of items had been donated at Naples Airport by Southwest Florida residents for that delivery.
Based at the Naples Daily News, Columnist Phil Fernandez ([email protected]) writes for the USA TODAY NETWORK, which supplemented this report through the efforts of Tomas Rodriguez, Stacey Henson, Jeff Burlew, Sergio Bustos and others. Support Democracy and subscribe to a newspaper.