'It truly is a marathon': Cape Coral fire chief addresses lessons learned from Hurricane Ian

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.

In this installment of our Hurricane Ian Lessons Learned Q&A's, Cape Coral reporter Luis Zambrano shares the highlights from his conversation with Cape Coral Fire Chief Ryan Lamb.

Cape Coral Fire Chief Ryan Lamb.
Cape Coral Fire Chief Ryan Lamb.

Would you say the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Ian was the worst you've ever experienced?

Yeah, this was the largest disaster in the City of Cape Coral's history. In the 15 hours that 911 services were shut down, we had over 900 calls and holding for police and fire. And so having that kind of demand put to that in perspective for the fire side, we get about 70 calls a day for emergency service, so to have that volume in holding, it took a large demand to get through it.

And then having to prioritize and triage through those calls, we have limited resources and high demand, for where we're going to be able to apply those to get the biggest impact? And also looking at where the greatest loss of life potential was and trying to help intervene.

Where's the city currently in its recovery process? If it was a percentage, how much would you say the city's recovered?

I don't know if I would give a percentage. I would say it's a journey. So we've phased out of the immediate response phase, that rescue phase, a couple of days after the storm, then we get into more of that response phase where we're trying to take care of some of the immediate life needs: water, food, and shelter. We've transitioned beyond that to some of the short-term recovery issues, which turned into getting debris removed, then to some of the intermediate issues, like getting permits and emergency permit processes, and some of the temporary housing. Now we're looking at some of the really long-term recovery stuff, which will probably last for the better part of a decade. So again, it truly is a marathon as we talk about hurricane recovery.

Now we have a staff of five here specifically in emergency management. We have four additional consultants that are here full time working on all of the grants and recovery systems that are available from FEMA Public Assistance to hazard mitigation grants, from the HUD community, block redevelopment grants that are out there, (and) that's the $1.1 billion, so making sure that we can not only maximize our reimbursement for dollars that we've already expended, but then also make sure we can get additional dollars coming into our community to make sure we're recovering, and also more resilient for the next time a storm potentially impacts our area. So I don't know if I can really give a percentage, but I would say that we're into the long-term phase of recovery, and that's going to be over a decade in the process. Just to give a frame of reference, I think in 2018, we closed out Hurricane Charley, and that was in 2005, so that's how long some of these things take. Not only is it just the initial response, it's all the way through the reimbursement process, the FEMA grants, and then also getting those projects completed and closing audits with FEMA. So it is a decade's worth of work that's before us.

What will it take for hard-hit areas of Cape Coral to feel normal again?

Well, I think we're getting there a little bit more every day. Some of this is some tough decisions that some homeowners are still being faced with for housing, with the FEMA 50% rulemaking the decision if they're going to try to elevate or continue to recover in those areas. It's one thing to have a lot of the debris taken away, and have the power restored, but now this is where we are going to start seeing some of these communities and neighborhoods, specifically within Cape Coral, make some tough choices. We see a number of homes that have been slated for demolition based on the amount of damage they received. And so now, as those houses or businesses come down, having new businesses or homes be built in its place, the construction process, I think a lot of people are working through. But there's still a lot of blue roofs around our community, and so part of that is supply, getting enough roofing materials, and getting enough contractors and workers that are able to come in and do that work. And then a lot of its insurance issues that are still lingering.

I'm personally still dealing with my insurance company, United Property and Casualty, and they folded, so now we're having to work with the Florida Insurance Guarantee Association to try to get dollars back. So I think that's a multi-pronged issue where people work with their insurance companies to try and get the money to be able to perform some of those repairs. Or again, or even making that decision can they repair versus having to relocate and rebuild or so that whole process. I feel like a lot of people made progress through that. But if you're deciding on the repair process, it's going to take time to (A.) get the funding, (B.) get supplies or get a contractor and then get supplies to actually accomplish the work. So I feel like things are starting to continue to move, but it's going to be a long process because it's not just one house that needs to get remodeled, or it needs a new roof. I would say probably 80 to 90% of roofs in Cape Coral had damage.

A group of randomly picked Cape Coral residents were given a tour of the ballroom area of the Cape Coral Yacht Club on Wednesday, August 23, 2023. They met with Cape Coral officials and planners to come to a consensus on what should be done with some of the features of the historic building. It is being demolished to make room for a new building. The area and building around the Yacht club was closed after Hurricane Ian roared through the area.

Lee County plans to spend $1.1 billion to aid in recovery. What does Cape Coral want to see done with that fund?

So the $1.1 billion that's coming from the federal government, from HUD, was directed to Lee County. We have met, myself, the mayor, and the city manager, have met numerous times with the county government folks to make sure that the voices of Cape Coral are heard in that plan and how those funds are going to be expended. Because they're from the urban housing and development area, a lot of the dollars are geared toward housing. So making sure what that looks like in our community, but there are also large infrastructure needs and additional planning needs, and so those are other things that those funds can be expended for. So making sure that we're ready and we have projects lined up at Cape Coral as being part of the county that we are represented in helping our community recover with those dollars from the HUD money.

Or there was another $339 million that was allocated for Hazard Mitigation grants, or state appropriations to the state budget, so we've been meeting with our county partners on those dollars. We've been meeting with our state reps and state senators on continued unmet needs. And then we've also met with Congressman Bryon Donald to be able to talk through potential needs for what we're seeing. So the 1.1 billion was applied just for the HUD dollars. When we did a needs assessment for Cape Coral, we had over $4 billion worth of projects that we could do related back to the storm. Whether it be for housing, infrastructure, economic revitalization, or recovery planning, there were a number of areas that we were keenly looking at in different kinds of categories, and the total dollar figure was $4 billion and that was primarily in the housing and infrastructure sections.

Flooding was a big issue for people living in the southern part of the city. Is there anything the city can do to minimize or address this issue in the future?

Cape Coral is a low-lying coastal community with limited evacuation routes. If you look at the Cape Coral bridge that takes you into Fort Myers and additional traffic, the same thing with the midpoint near Hancock in Del Prado and Burnt Store Road. In addition to that, we also have Pine Island and Matlacha that have to evacuate through our community. So first and foremost, I would say we live in a very beautiful place and sometimes that comes with some drawbacks. Having access to water as readily as we do, which makes us an attractive place to live, also brings with it one of the dangers of storm surge, as we see tropical cyclones impact our coast. So being that we're so close to the water, being an area that was developed by the Rosen brothers from basically a swamp to what it is today, that brings with it the challenges.

The hard part there would be making sure that buildings elevate right. What I did see was that a lot of the newer construction buildings survived better and fewer of them had storm water intrusion. So we do see that some of the new building codes are making a difference in volume and the strength of the structure by keeping the amount of the surge. Not sure there's a whole lot that can be done to mitigate against the 15-plus foot storm surge. That's why when evacuations are called for, we really ask people to try and heed them. And that's one of the concerns that we had post-Irma was everything was gonna go bad. There was gonna be all the surge and it didn't happen because of the 30-mile shift in that storm where it impacted south versus further north, and in this situation, unfortunately, was the worst-case scenario for Cape Coral.

Some residents experience weeks without electricity. What steps have LCEC and the city taken to ensure a quicker recovery in the likelihood of another severe hurricane?

So it's a great question for LCEC. But we do have LCEC with a position here in our Cape Coral EOC. We've continued conversations not only with their representatives, we talked with their unified command, their incident commander, and their CEO on different programs and projects that they have planned to become more resilient. But then also different deployment strategies to make sure that, and unfortunately you know it's we hope that we never have to experience another hurricane in our area for many, many years. However, we want to make sure we're as prepared as we can be for the next one. And to me really, a failure would be repeating some of the same mistakes that happened the time before. There's always going to be new challenges that pop up. But we want to make sure we address any of the challenges that we saw this time making sure that we come up with solutions to try to not repeat those same issues. So, we are working with LCEC to try and come up with some solutions on how to get there.

I think some of this is also an educational thing for some of our residents. I also heard struggles that there was power on the pole and their neighbors had power, but there was damage to what they call their Weatherhead, the connection that goes into the house, and knowing that they have to go get an electrician. They didn't find out about that till much later in the process where it could be one of those if they had gotten a hold of an electrician early on, they have had repairs and they could have received power quickly. So talking with LCEC and our folks trying to educate our residents so they can get power as quickly as they can. And then working with LCEC on different ways that they can spin up quicker to get additional crews working on the lines and help support them in that effort. Whether it be areas for base camps or other things that we've been working on, and seeing where the city can help LCEC in that process.

Luis Zambrano is a Watchdog/Cape Coral reporter for The News-Press and the Naples Daily News. You can reach Luis at Lzambrano@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @Lz2official.

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Cape Coral fire chief Ryan Lamb addresses Hurricane Ian recovery