Everglades City, the tiny fishing village sandwiched between two swamps and the Ten Thousand Islands has never had much: no fancy supermarket, only a handful of restaurants, few fences, one school, no stoplights, zero traffic.
A year after Irma, the last of Florida’s frontier towns has even less. And that’s just fine with the folks here.
“What makes us tick is the natural environment we’re in, not the comforts,” said Kathy Brock, who bought her first house 25 years ago — an old wood-frame house later updated with a secret stash room by the town’s famed pot smugglers — and now edits the town paper, the Mullet Rapper.
“The majority of people here, we may have different political opinions, but we’re like-minded in that we like this,” she said, gazing at an endless stretch of sea and sky where the Barron River empties into Chokoloskee Bay in Southwest Florida.
Everglades City is a place used to taking a beating when a hurricane swerves its way. In 1960, it lost its place as the county seat after Donna barreled through. It’s partly why the town of roughly 400 remains one of the few stretches of Florida coast free of condos and congestion.
Now, post-Irma, it’s slowly making its way back.
Most of the town’s houses, elevated on stilts, have been repaired after Irma pushed a six- to eight-foot storm surge ashore that left the town caked in mud. A third of the 75 older ground-level houses remain uninhabitable, said Mayor Howie Grimm, including his 89-year-old mother’s house. Unlike the Keys, few residents have left — although until winter arrives it’s not yet clear what toll the storm may take on the seasonal population. The historic Rod and Gun Club has a new roof and new coat of paint, City Hall got a new floor after the mud caused the old one to buckle, and the Island Cafe is again buzzing at lunchtime with locals and visitors to the surrounding state and national parks.
That’s not to say recovery hasn’t been difficult or come close to completion. Owners of homes not raised on stilts say they’re trapped between rising insurance and the high costs to elevate houses. Only two so far are being hoisted. The Circle K is still closed, along with the Oyster House and its package store. And ironically, one of the heroes in the rebuilding effort, cited by Congress in March for her tireless work, is among the last in line: longtime City Clerk Dottie Joiner.
When Irma roared ashore Sept. 10 just north of Everglades City on Marco Island, it pushed a storm surge awash in foul mud that filled houses, buried streets and later caked the town in a fine gray powder.
“I even took off door knobs and there was mud,” Brock said.
Joiner, who grew up in Everglades City, sought shelter with her family in the town’s sturdiest structure, the water treatment plant. When the storm passed, she drove her truck to City Hall and got back to work, checking to see who might be injured or otherwise in distress, and assessing damage. After Grimm got two generators to begin producing ice at his fish house, they coordinated what turned into a small armada of supplies and relief efforts, working out of an RV next to City Hall. Altogether, about 100 houses were condemned and ruled off-limits in the days following the storm.
At some point, someone told Joiner they’d driven by her stilt house across from the Gulf Coast entrance to Everglades National Park. All looked well.
“People were saying you just have one piece of siding that’s gone,” she said. “It was up in the air, so we thought it was fine.”
Her husband, who works at Big Cypress National Preserve, finally stopped by on the fourth or fifth day after the storm and found the doors open on the sturdy tan elevated house where they’d raised their daughter. Inside, he discovered Irma had peeled back the ridge cap on their metal roof, allowing water to pour in and soak all their belongings. After days without power, mold had taken hold. Even today, stripped to the studs, the air inside is hard to breathe.
Everything was ruined: furniture, kitchen cabinets, photo albums.
Joiner’s husband called her to come take a look. When she got back to City Hall, she had to sneak into the vault, the only quiet place, to have a good cry.
“Then I regrouped and I was fine,” she said.
Her daughter and son-in-law’s house in Plantation near Everglades City was also a total wreck.
Like a handful of families, rebuilding for the young family with two kids was too hard, Joiner said. Federal emergency workers arrived quickly after the storm and, for those with flood insurance, provided money for repairs, Brock said. But getting contractors to come to the remote town has been a struggle. And Grimm said he’s urged owners of ground level homes to await government grant money the city has applied for to raise homes before making repairs.
“The big obstacle is money,” he said. “FEMA is doing the best job they can. But we got to understand they were overwhelmed. The whole state of Florida was damaged to some extent.”
And what about his mother?
“She’s mad at me because I couldn’t get her stuff done because I was doing other stuff, but it’s all going to work out. It’s just hard to be patient, especially at 89 years old.”
After staying at the water plant for just over three weeks, the Joiners rented a local villa for a week then moved into ranger housing at Big Cypress. When seasonal staff arrived for the winter in January, they rented a trailer and have been living in it ever since next to their house. It’s not ideal: They constructed a small porch and laid rubber mats to keep from tracking mud back and forth. The carport serves as an extra room for storage. A fridge and coolers line one side. Shirts hang from a metal wardrobe. Joiner keeps the town’s mosquito control truck, which she drives every morning during her regular spraying patrol, parked in the driveway.
This past month, they finally settled their insurance claim after hiring a public adjuster. Others have not been so lucky: Shannon and Billy Snyder — Billy works at Big Cypress and Shannon teaches preschool — are still awaiting grant money to repair and elevate their house, Brock said.
“And unlike other communities, there are not a lot of [living] options for our residents to move here,” she said. “Our residents have to move to Naples,” a 45-minute drive away.
Of all the grueling jobs, from figuring out how to get the town’s basketball courts resurfaced to keeping town toilets from backing up without power, Joiner said listing her belongings for the insurance claim was hardest.
“I would sit there and ask how can I? It’s my whole life. How many pairs of everything? How many items of everything?” she said. “That’s 57 years and it’s gone.”