Post-hurricane recovery: Fort Myers beaches open for spring break visitors
"Herculean would be an understatement."
This is how Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau, described the recovery efforts in the Fort Myers, Florida, area after Hurricane Ian devastated the region in September 2022.
Hurricane Ian made landfall in the U.S. on an island off the coast of Fort Myers on Sept. 28, 2022. The Category 4 hurricane hit the Gulf Coast vacation destination in southwest Florida, which includes popular beach towns like Sanibel, Captiva, Fort Myers Beach and Cape Coral. It brought sustained wind speeds of 155 mph and storm surges as high as 12 to 18 feet above sea level, according to the Storm Surge Unit at the National Hurricane Center.
The largest recorded hurricane to make landfall in Lee County, Hurricane Ian left unprecedented levels of damage and destruction to the beaches and communities in the Fort Myers area. Initial damage assessments showed Ian caused more than $7.3 billion in damage to residential and commercial structures; it generated about 12 million cubic yards of debris, affecting every county beach and park, along with countless homes, hotels, restaurants, businesses and roadways.
They've been hard at work rebuilding ever since, and you can aid in restoring this world-class beach destination just by visiting for a vacation.
Tourism has a tremendous effect on Fort Myers' economy. "Visitors spent $4.2 billion in the Lee County economy in 2022," Pigott told TPG. "If we don't have our visitors, that has an inordinate impact on our ability to recover economically. I look at our visitors as a big part of our recovery," she added.
If you've spent time in the Fort Myers area in the past, Pigott knows it may be awhile before the destination looks the way you remember it. Many properties were destroyed entirely and there is still a lot of work to do.
Fort Myers doesn't only want to see tourists return because of the economic impact, however. "Visitors are a part of who we are," Pigott shared. "People come here because they want to be close to the water and because of our commitment to preserving nature," she added.
Those two things are at the heart of the Fort Myers community, and they consider visitors to be an important part of that community.
The road to reopening
Just in time for spring break travel, Fort Myers began a tiered reopening of its beaches to visitors in February. At the time of writing, most area beaches are open, though some facilities (like restrooms and piers) may still be under repair.
Currently, 9,825 hotel rooms are open and welcoming guests to Fort Myers — 68.6% of what was open before Hurricane Ian. So your favorite beachfront hotel may not be open at this time, but that doesn't mean you need to find a new beach destination this spring break.
"There are a limited number of hotel rooms right on the beach," Pigott said, "but there are a lot of other hotel options in the area." Rather than switch up your destination entirely, Pigott encourages visitors to explore new parts of Fort Myers that they haven't been to before.
Nature lovers can still experience the area's natural beauty and wildlife at Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve — a milelong boardwalk through freshwater wetlands — and the Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs. Families can play at Cape Coral's Sun Splash Family Waterpark and Fort Myers' IMAG History and Science Center. Foodies can sample drinks and dishes at the restaurants, breweries and wineries in downtown Fort Myers and Bonita Springs.
Sports fans can watch the Boston Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins prepare for the 2023 Major League Baseball season during spring training. Spring training runs from Feb. 25 through March 28 at JetBlue Park and Hammond Stadium, respectively.
Related: The best spring break destination for families for an easy vacation
You can still enjoy the things you love about Fort Myers and its surrounding beach communities, but you may also discover something new. You can stay up to date on which attractions, restaurants, accommodations and beaches are currently open on the Visit Fort Myers website.
If you do visit, it's recommended you wear water shoes at the beach as a precaution. Although the beaches have been thoroughly checked for debris, they are still in the process of being restored. Foot protection is a simple safety measure you can take while visiting.
How you can help
The easiest way to help is by traveling to the Fort Myers area for a relaxing beach getaway, but you can help even further by volunteering your time to aid in the cleanup efforts. Even spending as little as a few hours volunteering can leave a lasting impact on Fort Myers' recovery.
Multiple local organizations are leading the recovery efforts:
- Keep Lee County Beautiful: Hosts regular cleanup events and fundraisers for residents and visitors.
- Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation: Visitors can pick up a "beach bucket" at certain beach access points and use it to collect garbage and debris on the beach.
- United Way of Lee, Hendry and Glades Counties: Hosts ongoing volunteer opportunities, including unloading and sorting supplies, and helping with construction services for elderly and disabled homeowners.
Whether you are a first-timer or a regular visitor, volunteering is a unique way to give back and ensure the longevity of this beloved beach destination. Not only can you play an integral part in Fort Myers' recovery, but you can also create long-lasting memories and see the fruits of your labor each time you return to the area.
A beacon of hope for the future
A recent milestone provided a literal and figurative beacon of hope for Fort Myers' future. In the early morning hours of Feb. 28, the iconic Sanibel Lighthouse was officially relit for the first time since Ian washed away one of the lighthouse's legs and some of the ground-level structures.
"To have the lighthouse rebuilt was a really important date for us," Pigott said. To see such an important structure restored provided a much-needed boost in spirit and a strengthened sense of resolve for a community that has already been through so much in the past few months. "It will take some time, but we are committed to rebuilding the community to a place we want to live and tourists want to visit," Pigott said.
It's pretty remarkable that you can assist in that commitment just by visiting, but that's exactly what Pigott is hoping travelers will do.