Coming to terms this week with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma, Minnesotans who had homes or businesses in the storm’s path have turned to the expensive task of recovery after surviving one of the worst hurricanes on record.
A retiree who only recently moved to Florida said she might have to move back. A charter sailboat operator said customers will be rerouted, possibly for months to come. And a restaurant owner said that at least she can say her friends didn’t die.
“A couple of days ago I wasn’t in such high spirits,” said Peggy Liemandt of Minnetonka, who with her husband owns three restaurants in the Caribbean. “But the fact that our friends are all alive and most of them are doing well, I’m thrilled.”
The storm at one point ranked as the worst ever recorded, with sustained winds above 185 miles per hour. Some 70 people have been reported dead, and dozens more remain missing. Damages are in the billions of dollars, while the long-term economic impact on a region dependent on tourism could be substantial.
Power outages threw millions of people into darkness, cutting electricity to air conditioners in a region where temperatures routinely soar into the 90s and higher.
Some 50,000 utility workers from across North America have gone to Florida to help restore power, including 70 Xcel Energy employees from the Upper Midwest. Florida Power and Light estimated that most customers would have power by Sept. 22.
Sharon Read had dreamed of moving to Florida for nearly a decade. At age 59, she was tired of Minnesota’s cold and wearing coats and boots and scraping car windows. She had a touch of arthritis and believed the Florida climate would be better for her than the cold in Little Canada, where she lived.
“Plus, I love palm trees, and I hope to see a manatee,” Read said.
So in May, Read left her job as a security guard and bought a mobile home in Cape Coral, near Fort Myers. She spent about $15,000 fixing it up, including putting on a new roof. Now that roof is scattered around the trailer park. Water soaked the walls and insulation, and mold is already starting to grow.
“I’m thinking it’s a total loss,” Read said Friday. “My belongings are OK but I have to get a tarp over the roof, and they’re hard to come by. It’s hard to reach FEMA and my phone hasn’t been working well.”
Read had no insurance on her trailer — “I wasn’t able to get it,” she said.
She’s hoping FEMA can help, but she might wind up returning to Minnesota.
“Back to the cold and the coats, and I never get to explore the great state parks in Florida,” she said with a sigh.
“My greatest blessing is that all nine of my cats survived.”
Charter sailboat operator Cindy Kalow sent a mass mailing this week to customers to explain what comes next. In the days since Irma hit, the sailing community has shared images from sailing hot spots like Tortola in the British Virgin Islands that show million-dollar boats piled up like children’s toys.
“Tortola is not an option. St. Maarten is not an option,” said Kalow, who runs Superior Charters out of Bayfield, Wis., where sailors cruise the Apostle Islands in the summer months.
Kalow said the damage and devastation in St. Thomas and the U.S. Virgin Islands, one of the world’s premier sailing destinations, was so extensive that charter boat operators are rerouting customers to other locations, such as Belize.
Kalow said her job at this point is to say yes, the damage was bad, but companies are scrambling to get their businesses back in order and get tourists to come back.
“The companies are all pretty anxious to get their feet under them and encourage our customers to not run away and give up,” she said.
Signs of life are already appearing amid the rubble, with beach bars opening up where they can. But the main industry throughout the region is tourism, and it could be a long time before the local economy gets back to normal.
“It’s just going to be devastating,” Kalow said. At least, she added, “in a couple of months there will be green foliage and it won’t look like a bomb went off, like it does today.”
‘No trees, not a blade of grass’
Some of the worst scenes of ruin have come from idyllic Caribbean spots like St. Maarten and the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, where Irma tossed heavy yachts onto land, smashed windows and shredded roofs while stripping the hillsides of greenery.
On St. Thomas and St. Maarten, “there are no trees left, not a blade of grass,” said Peggy Liemandt.
She and her husband, Dan Liemandt, own three Greenhouse bar-restaurants, one on St. Thomas and two on the Dutch side of St. Maarten, a joint French-Dutch possession.
The Minnetonka couple reopened their St. Thomas business six days after Irma hit. On Thursday, they were still waiting for water utilities to be restored on St. Maarten, and the two restaurants there remained closed, though largely undamaged. The Liemandts weren’t so fortunate with their own condo on St. Maarten. The roof of the building tore off in winds exceeding 200 mph, and everything in their unit was destroyed.
The aftermath of the storm has been chaotic, Peggy Liemandt said, with electricity, lights, water and phone service remaining sketchy throughout the region.
“It’s been one thing after another, everybody trying to find out how everybody is,” she said. “I’ve recognized the fact that there’s nothing that can be done about it now.”
Birthday — not
Wendy Carson had planned a big 50th birthday bash for herself, inviting friends from as far away as Sweden to join her in Fort Myers in early September to celebrate at the condo she bought last fall. Irma’s approach put a sudden end to the festivities, forcing Carson and her husband to stay in Minnesota instead.
“I’m a very new Floridian,” said Carson, a real estate agent who lives in Eagan. “I’ve never been through a storm — I was so worried, just sick to my stomach.” Carson’s former neighbors in Eagan are also her condo neighbors in Fort Myers, and they kept her informed as the storm progressed.
“We were getting reports, and it wasn’t good,” she said. “At one point my husband said, ‘I don’t want to know.’ ”
Fortunately, the couple’s unit, about 5 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, came through with little damage, though the power was still out more than a week after the storm passed.
What has Carson learned from her first experience with a Florida hurricane?
“Definitely, to prepare,” she said. “Make sure you know who’s going to take care of your place. And really understand your insurance policy!”