A hurricane away, how could St. Petersburg avoid ruin like Fort Myers?

St. Petersburg officials visited Fort Myers to take in “lessons learned” from Hurricane Ian.
St. Petersburg Fire Emergency Management Manager Amber Boulding chats with St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch after meeting with officials in Fort Myers Beach to discuss lessons learned during Hurricane Ian on Friday, May 19, 2023 in Ft. Myers Beach.
St. Petersburg Fire Emergency Management Manager Amber Boulding chats with St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch after meeting with officials in Fort Myers Beach to discuss lessons learned during Hurricane Ian on Friday, May 19, 2023 in Ft. Myers Beach. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published May 24

FORT MYERS — One thing Fort Myers found out with Hurricane Ian last year is that the city’s updated building codes worked. City officials were amazed at how well newer, elevated buildings fared after getting battered by wind and waves.

It was older homes along the Caloosahatchee River, where the city allows greater concentration of homes and condos built low to the ground, that were lost to flooding. Downtown businesses show high-water marks up to the doorknobs. Pieces of floating docks from a marina were found in an intersection three blocks from the river.

City and business leaders from St. Petersburg took a field trip to Fort Myers last week to see what they could learn from its experience with the third costliest storm in U.S. history. As they were repeatedly reminded throughout the trip, Hurricane Ian initially had Tampa Bay in its crosshairs.

And, as federal models show, 40% of a much more densely populated St. Petersburg could flood during a Category 1 hurricane, the scale of the damage would’ve been so much worse, officials told them.

“I don’t know how you can draft codes or create codes to compensate for something like that completely,” said Steven Belden, Fort Myers’ Community Development Director. “But it’s an opportunity for us to look at our codes and see what we can do.”

Related: It won’t take the ‘perfect storm’ to wreak havoc across Tampa Bay

What they saw

The St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce wanted to know what they could do not only to prepare for a storm that could put much of the city underwater, but how to manage and bounce back. They arranged a bus trip Friday.

They went over everything from permitting and building back to managing the outpouring of well-meaning yet overwhelming offers of help. But it was the personal horror stories of children swimming to neighbors’ homes for safety and bodies found wrapped around trees that stayed with them.

“It’s a good trip. But it’s sobering as well,” said Mayor Ken Welch, who brought along nine city officials. “I mean, it just really brings it home.”

On the bus ride over to Fort Myers Beach, Warren Baucom, a director in the Lee County Economic Development Office, gave a narrated tour. He told stories about railroad tracks lifted off pilings and into the river and the cars of hospital workers lost to storm surge.

Eight months after the storm made landfall, sailboats still sit atop mangroves. The county is still picking up debris.

“It would’ve been magnitudes greater impact along Tampa Bay,” said Baucom, who grew up in Tampa.

Passing leveled concrete block houses typical of Florida, they pulled up to a portable building serving as the temporary Town Hall for Fort Myers Beach. They crowded into a room where Jacki Liszak spoke about her recent trip to where Hurricane Ian was at one point forecast to hit.

“I have to tell you,” she said. ”I spent years living in Tampa a long time ago and I drove down St. Pete Beach and I saw it with different eyes.”

Liszak, the president and CEO of the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce, was clear about the effect the hurricane would have on the mainland. Residents need transportation on and off the island. First responders and volunteers will need a place to stay. Contractors and workers will clog roads.

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“Everything that leaves St. Pete Beach will come into you guys,” she said.

Her home still doesn’t have power. The beach just got most of the streetlights back on.

“The biggest thing I can say from lessons learned is, you know ... St. Pete, you guys are a much bigger group than we are. Take the help,” said Fort Myers Beach Mayor Dan Allers, who rode out the storm at a friend’s house on the beach. “It’s going to grow beyond your capacity. You guys are staffed to handle your day-to-day operations maybe a little bit more, but it will grow beyond your capacity pretty quick.”

What if?

Fort Myers Beach had a quirky, vibrant charm much like in St. Petersburg. In the aftermath, residents painted colorful street signs on wood to help first responders with directions.

But many of those businesses won’t be back, Allers said. There are 1,500 residents living on the beach now, down from 7,000 full-time residents.

St. Petersburg has almost three times the population as Fort Myers and on a peninsula. It’s buffered by coastal islands spotted with a mix of high-rise condos and hotels and bungalows that sit right atop the sand.

“That’s why we’re here,” said Chris Steinocher, the Chamber’s CEO. “We’re not gonna let that happen.”

Fort Myers officials said they are looking at “a complete overhaul” of the city’s comprehensive plan of future land use policies and land development regulations.

“This hurricane is forcing us to take a closer look at those densities as well,” said Belden, the Fort Myers city official. “What do we want to do moving forward? That’s a big question to ask.

“There’s been development and development and we never want to turn development away,” he continued. “We have to be smart about it for sure, because we saw what happened here.”

In 2020, the St. Petersburg City Council approved loosening rules to allow for more density in 40% of the city labeled a “coastal high-hazard area,” or at risk from storm surge. At the same meeting, council members also raised building standards in those areas for any new construction.

Those areas include St. Petersburg’s busiest job centers, major corridors and areas ripe for redevelopment. Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration said the the change would discourage developers from moving inland and redeveloping traditionally Black neighborhoods.

The city’s new sustainability, resiliency and energy director did not attend the trip.

In an email, St. Petersburg spokesperson Erica Riggins said Welch is coordinating with the city’s emergency manager, Amber Boulding, who attended the trip, and the city’s planning and development services director, Liz Abernethy, to discuss improvements to the city’s post-disaster preparedness.

Welch declined to make himself available for a follow-up interview. Much of his staff elected to travel to Fort Myers separately after learning that a Tampa Bay Times reporter had been invited on the bus.

Riggins said Tampa Bay does not have a Recovery Task Force similar to Lee County. St. Petersburg’s formal recovery plan includes immediate responses, such as search and rescue and street teams, and short-term recovery, such as debris clearance and damage assessment.

She did not include details on what the long-term recovery plan entails, but said the Tampa Bay region was awarded a grant from FEMA last year to develop a guidebook.

As for the 40% of the city in areas deemed labeled “coastal high hazard,” Riggins most of it is made up of single-family homes or preservation areas. Those homes could be rebuilt, but must meet current standards. For example, the city’s standard for the finished floors in new homes is 2-feet above the federal minimum.

Riggins did not mention any proposed changes. She said the city is working on expedited approval of certain permits following a natural emergency.

“We’re as ready as we can be and we’re still going to get better,” Steinocher said. “No one’s resting on their laurels.”