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Charlotte County faces a long road to recovery after Hurricane Ian

Tractor picking up tree debris
Charlotte County Emergency Management
Charlotte County communications director Brian Gleason said workers expect to collect about 2 million cubic feet of debris.

Charlotte County communications director Brian Gleason discusses the recovery efforts in Charlotte County following Hurricane Ian, and what remains to be done.

The long road to recovery continues after Hurricane Ian in Charlotte County.

Three weeks after the storm hit, power's on, most schools are back, and parks are reopening. But getting the internet and cell phone service fully restored has been a challenge, and 70 residents continue to live in an emergency shelter.

WUSF's Matthew Peddie spoke with Charlotte communications director Brian Gleason about the challenges residents face, and problems that are still cropping up.

Matthew Peddie: What is the situation in Charlotte County?

Brian Gleason: Well, the power has been on for about a week. There's still some outages for internet. Cell services is pretty good, but it can be spotty depending on if you're in a dead spot. I think Charlotte County was 90% restored for internet access with XFINITY, there's still a lot of people without it and they're pretty hot about it. The stores are opening, the gas stations are opening. We've closed down our points of distribution for essential supplies like food and water. The medical front is getting better. The 911 calls, we're running about twice the normal rate for a couple of weeks after the hurricane. And now we've got all four of the hospitals that should have served Charlotte County are back up and running, including Fawcett Memorial, which was evacuated during the storm. It suffered some flooding with a roof failure. Water got into that and they had to evacuate, but pretty Herculean effort on the part of Fawcett Memorial to get that situation under control, where they diverted the water that was coming in from the roof down the stairwell and out the building. They created a helicopter launch pad to help with the evacuation of patients. They had a fleet of ambulances coming in to move patients around and they got through the storm with zero storm-related fatalities. So just a great job by by them in Shorepoint Hospitals in Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte. They both opened pretty soon after the storm and Englewood Community Hospital, which is in Sarasota — but serves a western part of Charlotte County — is also up and running. So are the two urgent care centers that we had operating here, as part of the assistance, we've been receiving the Disaster Medical Assistance Team that Health and Human Services stood up, they're gonna shut down tomorrow, the National Medical Corps, which operated an urgent care center, I had a couple locations in Charlotte County, their final location is going to close down on Friday.

When you say the 911 emergency calls are growing at double their normal operating capacity, is that because of people calling in storm-related emergencies or things that couldn't they couldn't get to because of the storm?

Mainly, it was things like storm injuries, stress-related conditions, people have damaged homes and doing yard work. And it was really warm the last part of the first week after the hurricane. And so you had people dealing with physical ailments and also conditions that were exacerbated by the stress and the heat and the work of digging out

Charlotte County communications director Brian Gleason

Back to the internet. I talked to a reporter who had been down to Punta Gorda Library to talk to folks who are using that library as kind of an internet focal point and I know some of the other libraries have been operating as that as well. It seems like the county has been working to try and lay on some extra capacity while people whose homes get reconnected.

Well, the two that are open — Englewood Charlotte and Punta Gorda Charlotte libraries — they always have internet coverage, they have public WiFi when they're operating in normal times. So it really was just a matter of reopening the doors, doing the damage assessment, making sure they were secure. They didn't have any issues, and then opening the doors for the public. And like you said, people started filing in and packing the place. When Punta Gorda was open, that was the only one that was open for a couple of weeks. And then Englewood Charlotte opened late last week. So very popular, like I said, still some pockets of no connectivity for the internet. And so people were using those as hubs to do their online assistance registrations, to contact their insurance agents, all kinds of personal business — checking in with family and friends, getting updates that we've been posting on social media and on our website. For awhile, we were publishing 5,000 or 6,000 flyers a day to distribute printed copies of information to folks who were at our pods. And at the Department of Health, and anywhere people were gathering, the FEMA registration site at the mall. So we were distributing thousands of copies of this daily resource guide to folks who didn't have any other way to get information. We've published ads in the in the newspaper, we did radio appearances in the mornings. The first week, we did more than 40 television interviews. And so it was a big outreach effort. You know, the internet being down for a lot of people just meant that we had to use some old-school channels.

What about things like just the debris recovery or the debris pickup because there's a lot across the state and it's gonna take a while to get that all collected. How's it looking in Charlotte County?

Right now we expect to have about 2 million cubic feet of debris and right now we have collected more than 400,000 cubic yards of debris, about 5,500 loads in the week or so that we've started collecting debris. If you pile that 10 feet high, it would fill 17 football fields.

Is that more than you've ever seen in your role at Charlotte County?

Yeah. I was in a different role when Charley hit. And they say that total debris for that event was under 2 million, like 1.7 million. And that was a fairly small storm, they say that Charley would have fit in Ian's eye. But still it packed quite a punch and the destruction that it did cause was whole roofs, entire neighborhoods of mobile homes. So the debris was a little different for that one, then it was for Ian. Ian was really widespread, there's not an area of the county that's not impacted. There's 80,000 street signs that are either damaged or the poles are bent, every single one of our traffic lights had some sort of damage. And we still have some intersections that are still not lighted. And I have to do a four-way stop situation or close off one or two ingress or egress points for the intersection just because not everybody plays nice after a storm and everyone's a little frustrated and in a hurry. And we were seeing collisions at intersections at a very high rate until the traffic lights came back on.

Do you have a sense of how many people countywide have been displaced from their homes and how long they're likely to be out?

We have a shelter open for displaced residents that has about 70 people in it right now. We've got some weather coming in this afternoon, that is going to potentially show some folks that their homes aren't quite as watertight as they might have thought they are if we get some more intrusion into some homes, then you might start seeing some water damage. Any time water comes inside a home, it means you're a candidate for mold. And that's an automatic, you know, you gotta get out. It's not healthy to be in a home that has mold growing in the drywall. And that kind of situation creates almost a gut job for whatever room has the mold growing in the drywall. And it just spreads until you take it out. So those folks who are in those situations, they may find that they have a housing crisis now 18 days after the storm that they thought they could ride it out. But you know, all of a sudden now they're finding out their home wasn't as watertight as they thought it was,

How long is that shelter gonna stay open for? Is that like an indefinite situation?

It's not determined right now. As long as there's a need, then they'll be open. We've got caseworkers that are assigned to individuals, so it helped them work through their FEMA assistance requests. Some of those folks will get temporary housing assistance for FEMA. The issue with that is that's typically in the form of a hotel voucher. And there's not a whole lot of hotel rooms available in southwest Florida, with all the recovery workers in town, and other folks who've already snapped up those rooms. So there was some concern that people would be moved so far away from home, that they would have to burn through gasoline and time just to come back and get their stuff together and start rebuilding their lives. So that's a real burden for some folks. The county is working on a plan right now to allow people to put RVs or trailers on their property.

What is the focus going to be for the county in the next few weeks? What do you need people to know? What are the biggest concerns? What information do you want people to hear right now?

Right now, the big topic of conversation is debris. People have done a lot of their own work. They've got their debris out to the curb, whether it's construction and demolition debris, or pool cages in one eyes, they've got it all stacked and sorted to vegetative debris. We want them to know we're on it, and we will pick up all the debris. We've already opened up to additional debris sites. If you want to put the debris in your pickup truck or your trailer and take it to those sites. There's one in South County on Florida Street, and there's one in West County on Placida road at the Placida boat ramp. In addition to the too many transfer stations that are open on Kenilworth in Port Charlotte, and on environmental way in Englewood. So there's four locations where people can drop off the debris. People don't care how the debris goes away. Even if they have to haul it themselves. They just want it out. So they don't have that constant reminder of how their lives got turned upside down.

I am the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show Florida Matters, where I get to indulge my curiosity in people and explore the endlessly fascinating stories that connect this community.