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A Fort Myers Beach business owner focuses on recovery after Ian

Woman holding small dog, wearing coral-colored shorts, gray tanktop, gray visor and beige sandals. She's standing in her backyard. A 30-foot boat is behind her wedged between two palm trees in her grass. The pool to the left is black with mud. Random debris is on the ground around her. The sky is blue and you can see a canal lined with trees behind her, as well.
Jessica Meszaros
WUSF Public Media
Sharon Faircloth is standing in her backyard. Her neighbor's boat crashed into her palm trees getting stuck there. Her pool is black with mud. She said she's afraid of what might be living in that muddy water, like alligators or snakes.

Sharon Faircloth has a few businesses on Fort Myers Beach and multiple employees out of their jobs, so she plans to pivot her mission, working to help officials with hurricane recovery efforts.

Sharon Faircloth owns three businesses on Fort Myers Beach and lives on a canal in the Palm Isles community, a bridge away from the beach town. Her gray home with a tin roof was built on stilts so she turned the bottom floor into an apartment. What once made up that space is now a pile of garbage in front of her home due to flooding from Hurricane Ian.

A two-story gray house with a white tin roof. Palm trees stripped of their leaves out front. And a pile of dry wall, wood and treasures that are now trash due to flood damage.
Jessica Meszaros
WUSF Public Media
Sharon Faircloth's house near Fort Myers Beach with a heap of garbage from gutting parts of the house due to flooding.

"We've never had water in this house … built this house in 2001," Faircloth said. "But we could tell like OK, we might get some water in the downstairs. So, we put everything up so it would be about 4 or 5 feet high. But then it came up 8 feet.”

To enter the apartment from the outside, we had to walk past bins of family photo albums that have been soaked through.

Generators powered fans that were drying out the former living space. The room was just a shell of itself, stripped down to the wall studs. There were small piles of items that could be salvaged in the corners.

To the bottom left, a bin of wet photo packets on the floor. To the left, a door screen on the floor with various printed photographs drying. Around it is random pieces from inside the house.
Jessica Meszaros
WUSF Public Media
Faircloth's family used the blown out screens as drying stations for their wet family photos.

"This was a bedroom," she said. "Luckily, we have a really unbelievably fantastic staff. They came right in and we've already torn out all this drywall.”

Faircloth and her husband own water recreation businesses on Fort Myers Beach. In one day, their livelihood was destroyed and their home was in shambles.

The storm surge and wind from Hurricane Ian essentially wiped away the heart of Fort Myers Beach. Restaurants, bars, stores and condos from mid-island to the Matanzas Pass Bridge have been either completely leveled or blown through, left with muddy debris spilling out.

For now, Faircloth is focusing on repairing her home. Her businesses employ about 30 people and they are all out of work, so she hired them to help her clean.

“The water came up to here,” Faircloth said, pointing to the wall way above her head.

“And I don't know how you describe the stuff on the floor. It's like dirt, mud. When we got here after the storm, there was about three inches of like black soup mud. It would stick to your boots so bad that you couldn't walk."

Wood studs with no dry wall, a bare floor, front door open to the bright outside. A large black fan is spinning.
Jessica Meszaros
WUSF Public Media
This is the downstairs apartment of Sharon Faircloth's home now that it has been cleaned and gutted after Ian's storm surge.

Then Faircloth led me to the backyard, where a 30-foot boat, which belongs to her next-door neighbor, was wedged between two palm trees — the bow directed toward her house.

“Luckily, there was a palm tree there. Otherwise, it would have floated right into our home. And our neighbor … he called us in the middle of the storm. And he said he saw the boat floating towards our house. So, he swam to try to put a line on it and tie it to a tree and almost got swept,” she said.

We turned back into the apartment and went up a short flight of stairs to enter the home. In a foyer next to the front door there was a waterline about knee-high. This was where she left the bins of photos to ride out the storm, thinking they were safe.

“Then the boxes I guess they must have floated because the current when it came in, it came in really, really fast,” Faircloth said.

There's another small set of stairs from the foyer going up to the main floor. It's dry up there so they have a safe place to stay.

“Downstairs is a complete disaster, but at least at night, we can come upstairs and like OK, feels a little bit normal. There's no electricity, and the water is trickling but that's okay,” she said.

Water pressure is really low and the water they do have needs to be boiled. But at least her home is standing. Her businesses, she’s not certain about.

“I have not been able to access them at all,” she said. “Our businesses are on the beach, so we do jet ski, parasail, boat rentals, all those fun things at resorts. So, the resorts I know are all severely damaged. We're expecting to be out of work for a year I'm guessing."

Her biggest concern, she said, is paying her staff. Her plan is to pick up some work from FEMA or get hired by marine contractors to help with the recovery efforts.

“We have boats, we have captains, we have people that want to work. So, I'm ready to put them to work," she said. "And we're just going to change our business model for a little while. And then when the beach is back open, we'll go back.”

Faircloth hasn't been able to get back to the beach yet because all of her vehicles were ruined by the storm. Also, access over the bridge has been limited because of the search and rescue mission.

But for those who make it there, it's a harrowing sight.

Main roads like Old San Carlos Boulevard and Fifth Street that turned into Estero Boulevard have been scraped to make room for passing emergency vehicles, with sand and debris piles larger than trucks pushed to the sides of the streets.

Mountains of debris stood between parked law enforcement fleets and lapping water.

There were clothes, hats and shoes from destroyed tourist shops mixed in with the wreckage. Some still had security tags attached.

Businesses and residences looked as though a bomb went off from inside — most are completely gutted.

And all that was left of the iconic fishing pier that used to jut out into the Gulf of Mexico from the beach was just a few pilings and a ramp leading up to it.

Since 2012, I’ve been a voice on public radio stations across Florida - in Miami, Fort Myers, and now Tampa.