'We have better plans': Naples, Collier County leaders reflect on Hurricane Ian one year later

Photo of the Naples Pier's damage after Hurricane Ian last year.

For our special one-year anniversary cover of Hurricane Ian, The News-Press and Naples Daily News reporters have had conversations with local leaders and officials about the important lessons that were learned and what's next for their communities.

On Sept. 28, 2022, Category 4 Hurricane Ian destroyed parts of Southwest Florida including Naples, Fort Myers, Sanibel Island, Isles of Capri, Cape Coral, and Pine Island. Several areas are still recovering from the storm's damage.

Collier County and Naples officials say the storm taught them many lessons and continues to impact how they handle storm preparedness.

Naples Daily News spoke with Naples City Manager Jay Boodheshwar and Collier County Emergency Services Director Dan Summers about what the city and county learned from Ian.

How did the storm surge affect Naples and Collier

Hurricane Ian brought winds and rain to the inland areas of Collier and Naples, but the coastal areas faced disastrous storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico.

"Unfortunately, we have all learned a powerful reminder about the potential and serious impact of storm surge," Summers said. "A hurricane with a significant on-shore flow-generating storm surge is such a different challenge as opposed to a storm that is, generally, just a wind event."

Boodheshwar said Naples had experienced disastrous winds, but Ian showed the city how detrimental storm surge can be.

"I think a lesson learned is that the city of Naples is prone to a major surge event," Boodheshwar said.

The storm surge from Ian reached nearly 12 feet in Collier County and close to 14 feet in Fort Myers Beach, causing detrimental flooding to coastal homes and businesses. Ian's surge was the highest recorded in Southwest Florida in more than150 years.

Importance of communication

Boodheshwar said Hurricane Ian showed how important it is to maintain communication during a disaster ― whether it's between the city and its residents or between the city and the county.

"We have better plans because of what we learned from last year," Boodheshwar said. "Specifically in terms of surge and the water and being prepared to communicate quickly to the community."

Naples and Collier County both have websites and emergency alerts for weather-related incidents. Summers encourages residents to sign up for the county's emergency alerts.

"We can’t emphasize enough to remind our residents and guests to stay in touch and take action in advance of these severe weather events," Summers said. "Actively listen to local government information regarding evacuations, have a plan, subscribe to Alert Collier for notifications, view the resources on the County’s website, and visit Ready.gov and Collier 311."

Recovery in Naples and Collier a year later

While it's been nearly a year since Hurricane Ian slammed into Southwest Florida, some homes and businesses are still rebuilding. And some locals still face emotional impacts from what Ian put them through.

"The homes that did well are the ones that are newer, that were elevated, either naturally on higher areas of the community, or are elevated by design to meet the building codes," Boodheshwar said. "So as far as the recovery is going, there are a lot of things that have to be demolished. New homes that will be built will be more resilient."

Boodheshwar said the storm affected people in unique ways and that no one experienced the exact same thing.

"The degree of impact really varies from some people having zero impact, to others losing their homes and their lives," Boodheshwar said. "And that is not lost on us. We understand the emotional trauma that occurred and we're super sensitive to that emotional trauma."

Collier County has experienced hurricanes before, but Summers said no two storms are the same ― and that affects how recovery goes.

"In my 41 years of hurricane response efforts, truly every storm provides some unique challenges," Summers said. "I don’t have any singular critical area of concern, but in the case of Ian and the regional issues it caused, our state faced resource challenges dealing with concurrent disasters around the country."

While Collier still faces recovery challenges today, Summers reflected back on how the county responded immediately after Ian's impact.

"There is always a balancing act to work to right-size the disaster response resources you need pre-landfall and what you need immediately following landfall when conditions and damage information are so fluid," Summers said. "As an example, we were able to spare some resources to Lee County, while still responding to our local needs."

How Hurricane Ian impacted future storm preparedness

When Hurricane Idalia first developed into a low pressure system, Naples city officials jumped into action because of how similar the storm looked to Ian.

"The weekend before Idalia became a named storm, we were in communication with the county and we coordinated on the timing of our emergency declaration," Boodheshwar said. "And that's very important. We rely on each other for intelligence and we rely on the county and their resources."

Summers said every storm and disaster the county faces allows officials to prepare even more for the next.

"Multi-hazard preparedness planning and training for natural, technological, and man-made hazards and threats is our year-round job," Summers said. "Each year we build upon lessons learned, new concerns, vulnerability reviews, and leverage limited dollars and resources to build local capability and resiliency."

Summers said the county has formed partnerships with crucial agencies to ensure the community receives resources before, during, and after a disaster.

"One exciting item that has grown from the response to Hurricane Ian is the partnerships that have formed with our Emergency Management team, the Collier County Community Foundation, and dozens of other non-profit human service agencies to work more closely together during times of disaster," Summers said. "These growing partnerships will refine the business process and improve the effectiveness of disaster response to those with serious unmet needs."

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Naples, Collier County discuss lessons from Hurricane Ian 1 year later