A year later, Volusia rebuilds but still shows scars from hurricanes Ian, Nicole

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

WILBUR-BY-THE-SEA — Ken Meister isn’t giving up on coastal living as work continues on his oceanfront home heavily damaged by hurricanes Ian and Nicole a year ago.

Meister is building back stronger, securing his home with 30-foot pilings and a 12-foot-high seawall. “It’s taking a lot longer than expected or we hoped, but it’s getting done,” he said.

But some of his neighbors are selling their oceanfront properties in the wake of damage that Volusia County officials estimate at more than $850 million.

A year later, the hurricanes’ wrath is still evident in Volusia, particularly along the hard-hit stretch of sand from Daytona Beach Shores to Wilbur-by-the-Sea, an unincorporated community of about 2,000 people.

Some damaged properties look much as they did a year ago when the back-to-back storms pummeled the coastline and sent homes tumbling into the surf. One near a beach-access ramp remains split in half with its contents still exposed. A couch is perched on the second floor, while a mattress rests in a pile of debris below.

Insurance denials left many residents with huge out-of-pocket repair costs, said A.J. Rockwell, owner of Sea Level Development in New Smyrna Beach.

“It is very, very slow progress,” said Rockwell, a contractor who has been helping with the rebuilding effort. “Nobody got any insurance or any assistance. Everybody is out of pocket for all the repairs, and it is pretty substantial and unexpected.”

Storm victims throughout Florida have complained of denied insurance payouts. Roughly a third of Hurricane Ian-related claims have been rejected or remain in limbo without payment, according to a June report from the state’s Office of Insurance Regulation.

Exclusions in policies for erosion-related damage presented problems for Wilbur residents filing claims, Rockwell said.

Repairs aren’t cheap. A single dump-truck load of beach-quality sand runs about $600, Meister said.

Kate Rose grew up on Wilbur’s beaches. Facing a repair bill in excess of $500,000, she decided to put her family’s home up for sale. The house is now perched on the edge of a cliff with a steep drop.

“Our property looks very much like it did the day of the storm,” Rose said. “We haven’t been able to do anything.”

Meister hopes to have his home rebuilt by next year. Last year’s storms sent half of the house crashing into the sea. This week, workers put the finishing touches on the new seawall.

He expects the next step will be tearing down the remaining part of his house and building a new one with deep pilings to provide additional protection during future storms.

Wilbur-by-the-Sea is a slice of Old Florida along a coastline increasingly dominated by high-rise condos and hotels. Beachfront lots still command a high price, despite the hurricane risk and damaged homes still lining the beach.

One lot with a newly reinforced seawall and new septic tank is listed for $1.5 million. A 5,386-square-foot Nantucket-style oceanfront home, built in 1920, is for sale for nearly $5 million.

Progress also has been made in nearby Daytona Beach Shores, where 29 condos and hotels were declared unsafe after the back-to-back storms. Police went door to door warning residents that their tower could collapse.

Fortunately, residents and guests were cleared to return to 27 buildings within a month after Nicole, said Mayor Nancy Miller.

The two vacant buildings are the Beach Quarters, which is undergoing a major renovation, and the Lexington Inn & Suites, which is in bankruptcy, Miller said.

Much like Wilbur, some condo buildings are moving headlong into recovery, while others appear frozen in time. A year after the storm, beeping trucks and buzzing construction drills mixed with the sound of the rolling surf.

The concrete chunks that once littered the shore have been cleared, and beachgoers have returned to the sand.

While substantial progress has been made on many repairs, about half a dozen properties have been issued notices of violation because of inaction, Miller said.

“There is a great deal of improvement,” she said. “We still have a ways to go, but we’re organizing together to get that beach back to the beauty that it was previously.”

Condo dwellers have been hit with special assessments to repair their damaged seawalls, which can span from $800,000 to more than $2 million, Miller said. Those assessments are on top of rising property insurance premiums and can mean thousands of dollars in unexpected costs for residents.

Even a year after the storm, about 110 people in Volusia County are still in temporary housing, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

At least 7,000 homes in Volusia County suffered flood damage, according to county officials. About 1,650 buildings sustained structural damage with 40 entirely destroyed.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided $103 million directly to Volusia residents for home repairs, rental assistance and other needs, along with nearly $9 million to help local governments and nonprofit organizations responding to Ian and Nicole.

The state offered more than $37 million to help Volusia County rebuild its battered beaches. State lawmakers also approved a $50 million program that will reimburse eligible property owners $150,000 for hurricane restoration projects, such as seawalls, sand placement and coastal armoring.

Some environmental advocates, though, have been critical of that program, arguing seawalls accelerate beach erosion and shouldn’t be subsidized by taxpayers.

Volusia County will receive nearly $329 million through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to assist with long-term recovery in low- and moderate-income communities.

Those funds will be used to address unmet housing needs, infrastructure projects and mitigation projects to protect against future storms, said Dona Butler, Volusia County’s new director of recovery and resiliency

County officials estimate the area’s unmet needs exceed $804 million, but they say they will try to spend the money available as effectively as possible to cover as much of the problems as they can.

Rose won’t forget Ian and Nicole. It’s a memory that will be locked in her mind whenever a storm is menacing the coast.

“It changes the people who have been through it,” said Rose, who now lives in the Bradenton area. “I think it changes them forever.”