Hurricane season has just begun, we have already had our first named storm out in the Gulf of Mexico and yet, many residents are still struggling to recover from the last one. Thousands of residents throughout Tampa Bay and along the southwest coast remain displaced more than eight months after Hurricane Ian ripped through Florida. They are awaiting insurance settlements or assistance to repair or rebuild their damaged homes, living in temporary housing that ranges from campers to apartments and still trying to rebuild their lives.
Hurricane Ian was the costliest hurricane in Florida history, leaving behind nearly $14 billion in insured damages. Medical examiners report 149 people died from the hurricane, including 72 in Lee County, where the hurricane made landfall as a Category 4 storm on Sept. 28. Tens of thousands of homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed, and the recovery efforts are continuing even as another hurricane season is upon us.
Our organization, Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay, is helping Floridians simultaneously recover from Ian and prepare for a hurricane season that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts could bring 12 to 17 named storms. Headquartered in Tampa, Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay is part of a network of more than 140 Rebuilding Together affiliates nationwide and was selected by the national office, based in Washington, D.C., to spearhead Ian recovery efforts.
As a local nonprofit and licensed contractor with 25 years of experience in providing home rehabilitation and modification services at no cost to eligible low-income homeowners in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Orange counties, Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay has the infrastructure to take on this formidable challenge. We are active in 15 disaster-declared counties in Tampa Bay, Central Florida and hardest-hit Southwest Florida.
We are making steady progress in assisting residents with their rebuilding efforts. The average cost of a Hurricane Ian repair is roughly $30,000 per household. We have completed 40 homes in Lee County since January, and we are gearing up to serve another 40 low-income families by the end of this summer through the Hurricane Housing Recovery Program. In the Tampa Bay area, we have eight roof replacement projects under way and seven within the Orlando area. Across the state we have more than 45 projects out for assessment or in progress.
Months after Ian, thousands of Floridians are still in need. More than half of the 300 applications for assistance we have received from Tampa Bay residents have come in since January. Overall, we continue to see about 100 applications for assistance every month that are made either directly to us or routed to us through our partnership with the state’s Sheltering in Home for Recovery Continuation program. This program is supporting our efforts to coordinate and deploy roofing and contracting teams in 15 Florida counties. That’s just one example of the ongoing collaboration between government agencies and organizations like ours that is vital to ensuring low-income Floridians get the help they need, quickly and effectively before another potential storm hits our state.
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As we keep working on Ian recovery efforts, Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay is continuing to emphasize the importance of preparing for the hurricane season and educating residents about how to enhance their resiliency to major storms. It’s clear from our experience with Ian and from other sources that education remains the key to saving lives.
For example, 36 people in Lee County died from drowning in the Ian storm surge. News stories include comments from residents who did not follow evacuation orders and regret that decision. Yet a survey by AAA in April found 24% of Floridians say they ignore evacuation orders, and 20% said they do not do anything to plan for hurricane season. We have to do better.
We encourage all Floridians to prepare now for any hurricane that may come our way. Check with your county officials to verify your evacuation zone and discuss with your family your evacuation plans. If a hurricane approaches and evacuation orders are issued by your local officials, follow those orders and allow enough time to reach your destination before the storm arrives.
As this hurricane season arrives, we have dual responsibilities. We all have an obligation to continue to help our fellow Floridians recover from Hurricane Ian — and to ensure we are prepared for the next hurricane.
Jose Garcia is the executive director of Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay and Rebuilding Together Central Florida.