Storm-hit businesses face arduous rebuilding

Disney character “Big Al” from Country Bear Jamboree joins guests sheltering in place at their hotel at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Disney temporarily closed its Central Florida theme parks in response to the storm, before reopening Sept. 30. (Photo by Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

Walt Disney World and other Central Florida tourist attractions avoided severe damage from Hurricane Ian. But many businesses on the state’s southwest coast have been hammered and face a long process of rebuilding.

In Fort Myers, a video posted on social media showed Times Square, a colorful district of shops and restaurants, leveled by the storm. Sanibel, a barrier island dotted with resorts and connected to Fort Myers by a causeway, was devastated.

Carol Dover, president of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, stopped in the middle of an interview to watch live television and was relieved to see the Westin Cape Coral Resort along the Fort Myers Marina still standing.

“But now everything they show on CNN is flattened. I don’t see anything but rubble,” she gasped. “We have a lot of rebuilding to do, and it doesn’t happen in a month. Sometimes it takes years.

Ian landed in southwest Florida as a Category 4 hurricane with accompanying storm surges that left thousands trapped in flooding and millions without power. As it moved inland and weakened – eventually into a tropical storm – high winds and heavy rain continued. But theme parks and other tourism magnets in central Florida appeared to have dodged crippling damage.

President Joe Biden has declared the state a disaster area, paving the way for federal aid to residents of many counties. Assistance may include grants and low-interest loans to help disaster-affected residents and business owners.

Florida’s leisure and hospitality sector accounts for nearly 1.3 million jobs, a 9.6% increase from a year ago, according to figures from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. Most of those jobs are in accommodation and food services, and they helped cut Florida’s unemployment rate to 2.7% in August — a full percentage point below the national average — from 4, 3% a year earlier.

Previous severe hurricanes caused a temporary increase in unemployment in leisure and hospitality businesses and in some real estate fields such as property management, followed by increased hiring by construction crews during the reconstruction phase, a said Sean Snaith, director of the economic forecasting institute at the University of Central Florida.

Snaith agreed that Southwest Florida faces a long process of repair and rebuilding.

“As far as tourism goes, unfortunately they were entering their peak season – the fall and winter months in the north – so the timing is extremely unfortunate,” he said. “But the beaches are still there, the theme parks are there, the weather is still nice outside of the hurricane. The tourists will come back.

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