Seconds after casting into the soupy waters of the Everglades, I felt a tug on the line. It was my first time fishing in Florida — anywhere, in fact — and this was making it look easy. When Hurricane Irma made landfall here in Everglades City, in September, it stirred up a bounty below the surface of these mangrove-wrapped waterways.
Back on land, evidence of the storm was less appealing. I picked my way over glass shards to a rickety wood-frame general store in front of the dock. The building was slanting precariously from the winds, but held what I was looking for: a working bathroom. It faced the street and the door was gone, blown away in the storm.
Several days — and many miles — later, I watched the sun set over the Gulf on a pristine white-sand beach, with no sign of destruction.
Six weeks after Hurricane Irma slammed into Florida’s southern Gulf Coast, I ventured to check up on the area. Would it be all gloom and decimation, or was this favorite winter getaway for Minnesotans already back on its feet? A bit of both.
During my 200-mile, south-to-north exploration of the coast, conditions improved with each passing mile.
In Everglades City, on the southwest edge of Florida where Irma hit hardest, whole trailer parks were reduced to rubble by the Category 3 winds and epic floods. Mountains of appliances towered over shacks that had floated off their foundations. Closer to Fort Myers, there were no appliance graveyards, but fallen trees piled up on front lawns, still waiting to be hauled away. From Naples and Fort Myers on north — all the way to Anna Maria Island, near Tampa Bay — damage was nearly invisible.
If there was any bright side to Irma, it’s that the hurricane churned up more of the great catches and unusual shells this region is known for.
“Fishing is unreal good,” said Joe McNichols, my fishing charter operator. “It’s a shame there are no customers.”
I was one of his first since the storm.
Many of his clients come from Minnesota, said McNichols, a lifelong Floridian who married a Minnesotan (his mother-in-law was a Minneapolis Aquatennial Queen). He’s waiting to see whether the visitors return once the winter season kicks off after Christmas.
Gateway to the Everglades
For all of Everglades City’s troubles, the 1.5 million acres of Everglades National Park are still there.
We headed out in McNichols’ technical skiff built for shallow water, and floated past fallen docks before winding our way into a labyrinth of the area’s Ten Thousand Islands, tiny land masses made up of intertwined mangroves. Irma gave those normally thick mangroves a haircut; the islands are browner and thinner than usual, though green growth is already coming back. Storm-tossed branch bits that landed in the water form little reefs that attract fish. We caught a trout, snapper, ladyfish and catfish almost instantly. Moments later, dolphins’ fins circled the boat.
“I don’t want to paint a rosy picture, but fishing is great; facilities aren’t,” said McNichols, who moonlights as a guitarist in a bluegrass band called Captain Joe and the Bottom Feeders.
“Truth be told, they never were,” he said. “Everglades City isn’t a five-star resort.”
This Old Florida outpost on the edge of low-lying wilderness never drew hordes of families the way Orlando and the beaches do. But airboat riders, outdoor adventurers and fishing enthusiasts have long passed through this gateway to Everglades National Park.
On the other side of a manatee zone we entered the Barron River, which trickles past Everglades City’s business district. Here, I could see Irma’s fickle destruction. Some homes were left untroubled. Others now have blue tarps for roofs.
The stately Rod and Gun Club, an inn that has hosted five presidents, remains closed for repairs. The Triad fish shack on a pier high above the river only just reopened on Oct. 15, the start of stone crab season. The waters had risen waist-high, ruining all kitchen equipment.
Inland from the river didn’t fare much better. A pile of debris the size of an apartment building is fenced off, waiting to be dismantled. Locals call it Mount Irma. An artist’s historic studio was lifted off its 4-foot foundation by the tide and then gently placed back down on the ground. Everything stayed on the shelves, but the building will have to be moved.
People here are familiar with the power of weather. The Smallwood Store, a historic trading post, general store and post office in nearby Chokoloskee, was raised high on stilts after a 1926 hurricane — high enough to survive this latest one. Today, the bayside structure is brimming with tchotchkes from an earlier time, from Seminole beads to an eerie mannequin of the former postmaster who founded the place.
Naples, Fort Myers look good
Down here, road signs warn of crossing Chokoloskee chickens, gopher tortoises and panthers. Less than 40 miles north, in Naples, signs of Irma are harder to spot.
Downed trees still line front yards in this ritzy community, but the upscale dining district along 3rd Street is back to normal.
D’Amico and Partners, the Minneapolis-based restaurant group, has two establishments along this well-heeled street. They were both expected to flood — some projected a 9- to 15-foot surge — but the waters never came. Instead, the power went out. The Continental, a steakhouse, had to dump $30,000 worth of meat. Sister restaurant Campiello, in a historic building that withstood the region’s last mega-hurricane, Donna in 1960, survived this one, too.
“I’m still shocked that all of this is here,” owner Richard D’Amico said from the twinkle-lit patio of the Continental. Even the bougainvillea that crown the sprawling courtyard are already back in bloom.
As I made my way up the coast, mounds of shattered palms lining roadways continued to shrink.
On tidy Sanibel Island, near Fort Myers, almost none were left. This charming island, known for the spectacular array of shells that wash up on its beaches, was expected to drown under a 12-foot storm surge that never came.
Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a highlight for visitors to the island, lost the tropical canopy along its entrance road. That was the only noticeable damage I saw during an early morning visit. In the near-empty park, I enjoyed mirror-like canals surrounded by the expanding tentacles of mangroves, tiny black crabs that spider-walk across paths, and brave herons that seemed unimpressed by my presence.
Near this secluded preserve, I wound up among an early-morning crowd of shellers looking for treasures the ocean dropped off as the last tide receded. Hunched over at the waist as they inch along the sand, they performed a dance native to this island: the “Sanibel stoop.” Proof that life goes on here on as usual.
One of country’s best beaches
My next stop took me beyond the usual orbit of vacationing Minnesotans, to Siesta Key. The Sarasota-area island is known for its powdery white sand. Dr. Beach, a coastal expert at Florida International University who has been ranking U.S. beaches since 1991, named this one the best in the U.S. for 2017 back before the storm. I wondered whether it, too, had survived Irma’s wrath. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that it had.
The sand of Siesta Beach is, indeed, entirely different from that on neighboring islands. Where crushed-up shells can make barefoot walks uncomfortable on nearby Lido and Longboat Keys, here it is as fine as powdered sugar, and cool to the touch.
The island’s village, stocked with party bars, was evacuated before the storm. But people here had a chance to see an unusual phenomenon before they left: the Gulf of Mexico, sucked up by the storm, had pulled away from the shore. That magnificent beach had only gotten bigger.
The village suffered only minor roof damage and short-lived power outages. Most visitors who flock to the island this winter will be met by only one remnant of the storm: the stories residents tell.
At Sun Garden Café, a popular breakfast spot, my waitress, Tracy, told an Irma story that was starting to sound similar to others I’d heard along the Gulf Coast.
“Bizarre. Frightening. Grateful,” she said.
The last day, I had driven to Anna Maria Island at the edge of Tampa Bay, about halfway between Sarasota and St. Petersburg. The sand here is just as fine as that on Siesta Beach, and where I sat to watch the sunset, howls of wind sent the powder flying. I felt like I was already back in blizzard country.
Bowled over by the Gulf’s brilliant calico sky at dusk, I thought, “It’s like nothing happened here.”
South to north, Hurricane Irma’s footprint got lighter, but up and down the coast, tourist spots are open for business and ready to charm.
A chill set in as the sun dipped below the horizon. I turned and hurried back up the wide, wild beach, to an alley alongside luxury houses that would lead me back to my car. I walked almost too fast to notice an idyllic baby-blue beach house with a caved-in roof.