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Everglades City, Chokoloskee Recount Hurricane Irma Damage One Year Later

Despite extensive damage, volunteers and community came together to bring the towns back up
Everglades City, Chokoloskee Recount Hurricane Irma One Year Later
A year ago, Everglades City and Chokoloskee were hit by Hurricane Irma as a category four storm. You wouldn't even be able to tell visiting today. Through the help of the community and volunteers, the towns are back up and running.
September 10, 2018 03:10 PM

Contributors

Michael Adam Mora

Tucked away in the Everglades -- beyond the airboat tour signs you spot while traveling across Tamiami Trail -- are Everglades City and Chokoloskee.

These two towns were walloped by Hurricane Irma . Many buildings were either destroyed or suffered significant damage.

“Anything that was on the ground was flooded," Mayor Howie Grimm said, who had to adapt quickly to his new position.

Within five days of becoming mayor, Hurricane Irma struck Everglades City. The natural disaster damaged most buildings, with about 25 percent becoming uninhabitable.

However, driving around town a year later, you wouldn't know that Hurricane Irma barreled into the city with a population of 450 people.

Everglades City was a secluded fishing town in Chokoloskee Island, with late 19th century inhabitants consisting of early settlers and the Seminoles Indian tribe. When the Florida Legislature created Collier County from Lee County in 1923, it designated Everglades City as the county seat.

When Tamiami Trail and State Road 29 built in the 1920s, the small town soon became easily accessible to other parts of the state.

The city was devastated by Hurricane Donna in 1960. Soon after, the county seat was moved to East Naples, where it resides in the present day.

Hurricane Irma had an impact as severe as the 1960s natural disaster. Mayor Grimm attributed the remarkable turnaround to of a strong tourism season and helpful volunteers. Over 8,000 volunteers contributed to the recovery within the span of two months.

“I get choked up thinking about how much love we were shown," he said.

Many local businesses Hello SWFL spoke with said it took them less than a month to recover and be back open for business, including Island Cafe where Austin Lewis is an employee. “We bounced back a lot stronger than we were," Lewis said.

Pictures showed layers of mud coating the restaurant, a horrific nightmare to anyone in the food and drink industry, but it only took them weeks to recover.

Down the street at Chokoloskee Church of God, the recovery took a little longer.

“We were left with just everything completely destroyed," Pastor Lynnette Morris said. "We started pretty much from scratch.”

But the recovery was effective -- the church looks impressive.

There is brand new flooring, paint and furniture, thanks to volunteers, and donors of the Chokoloskee Church of God.

“This was a bittersweet thing," Pastor Morris said.

Present day reminders of the Category 3 hurricane are a couple businesses that remain closed due to damage and broken trees. The Everglades National Park visitors center is still waiting for federal funds and approval to have it fixed.

Overall, the restoration efforts were a triumph for the town, which continues to welcome hundreds of thousands of tourists a year.

"We were a little bit dirty after the hurricane so we had to get cleaned up," Mayor Grimm said. "We're continuing to make ourselves more brilliant."

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