Downtown Naples’ chic Fifth Avenue was littered with palm fronds and debris, a couple of uprooted trees and broken glass. But its historic pier was still standing, and its Wal-Marts and Publix were bustling with customers two days after the city braved a direct hit from Hurricane Irma.
There was structural damage and power outages, horrendous lines for gas and shortages of other comforts and conveniences, like air conditioning and water.
But in Bonita Springs, just a few miles up the road, the situation was far more dire. Homes and streets in the 41-square-mile retirement and vacation hamlet were flooded in waist-deep, polluted water that continued to rise Wednesday, turning whole neighborhoods into muddy rivers.
The city is near sea level, and has always been prone to flooding, particularly from the Imperial River, which flows through many neighborhoods. Just two weeks before the hurricane, a storm dumped 17 inches of rain over three days, putting soccer fields and parks under water.
Jon and Grethel McBirney exhaled with relief during that last storm, as they watched the water creep up to the doorstep of their mobile home, then retreat. But Irma was not so merciful.
On Wednesday, they stood at the end of the street that leads to their home, watching people in canoes and paddle boards and men in waders navigate the stream that had swallowed their residences.
“Two weeks ago, the water was up to our driveway and we thought we were OK,” Jon McBirney said. “Then came Irma, and we come back and can’t even find our home.”
The hurricane dumped eight to 10 inches more rain.
“The flooding was all over town,” said Martha Simmons, a former councilwoman. “But the low-lying homes east of 75 were hit hardest.”
Many residents who evacuated during the storm began returning home Wednesday.
At the end of every flooded street, groups of people stared at what remained. Cars whose owners had tried to navigate their way out of the deluge were parked at odd angles, abandoned and drowned. Residents used small boats to gather what little was left of their belongings, shoving them into garbage bags, and wading into the street.
It wasn’t just the loss of material things, but the cruel shattering of the daily routines: the loss of homework and birthday parties, movies and TV, warm showers and home-cooked meals. Even talking on the phone and texting turned into impossible luxuries.
Lori Dupuie, a volunteer with Convoy of Hope, was among the volunteers going street to street in Bonita Springs on Wednesday, offering supplies and support.
“The children were the hardest, they just looked …” her voice cracking and trailing off.
On Tuesday, 20 people, including 13 children, were hospitalized from carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator that was too close to a home, another near-calamity.
Mayor Peter Simmons said there is a lot of work and cleanup ahead. Some neighborhoods might never be rebuilt.
“Unless we can reroute the water, we will continue to have flooding,” Simmons said.
Gov. Rick Scott visited the city Tuesday, touring some of the hardest-hit areas.
He promised to work with elected leaders to address some of the flooding issues that have plagued the area for decades — and are only growing worse with more development.
About 50,000 people live in Bonita Springs, but its population expands to 85,000 in winter. Most of its residents — 70 percent — are retired and elderly, but the city is changing. In recent years, gated communities and condo complexes with more affluent and younger residents have been built.
The city has tried to stave off over-development, particularly on land that now absorbs a lot of the water during storms. But builders with deep pockets continue to pressure officials to build on open wetlands.
“There are always people pushing for more homes,” the mayor said. “But it’s wet, and where are we going to put the water?”
He said the hurricane has only hardened his resolve to push back on development.
“What is it going to take for people to see the light? We have human lives at stake.”