Major Hurricane Irma’s Effects Still Linger for Many Homeowners

A year has passed since Hurricane Irma ravaged Southwest Florida. Her destructive force is still a prominent memory for most who were affected by this major hurricane. Damages to the Florida peninsula was widespread, causing unprecedented flooding in major metropolitan areas and storm surges along the Gulf Coast shoreline.

One year later, damage from Irma still lingers in waterfront communities. Throughout Lee County, especially in Cape Coral and North Fort Myers, hundreds of seawalls were damaged by Hurricane Irma. Due to the complexities and cost of seawall repair, many are still left collapsed or compromised.

Ground Erosion and Seawall Damage Caused by Hurricane Irma
Source: FEMA.gov

What Caused the Widespread Seawall Damage?

Irma’s track was very unpredictable up to the moment she made landfall. Her landfall around Marco Island, 45 miles south of Cape Coral, saved the city from the predicted storm surge. However, her strong NE winds actually pushed water out of the canals and off the Southwest Florida coast. With canals emptied of nearly all their water, the pressure on the land side of the seawalls was great and many failures occurred.

Short-term Assistance for a Long-Term Issue

FEMA stepped in with assistance for those affected by Irma which included low-interest loans funded by the SBA. These loans were available to qualified individuals and business owners, including those with seawall damage not covered by insurance. However, the deadline to apply for this assistance was November 9, 2017 – less than two months after Irma struck. Poor communication and short deadlines left many homeowners on their own to fund repairs that could easily eclipse $20,000.

commercial seawall repair
Seawall replacement at a condominium on Del Prado Blvd using newly approved materials

Funding isn’t the only issue in this story, getting a damaged seawall repaired or replaced involves a long waiting list. There are only a few contractors in Lee County qualified and equipped to manage seawall construction and repair for the thousands of affected residents. Since Irma, local contractor Williamson Bros. has increased the size of their teams and added equipment barges to their fleet. Even with more crews, working over 60 hours per week, they are still backlogged into 2019.

On average, a seawall replacement for a typical Cape Coral home takes nearly 4 weeks. This timetable can be further complicated by weather, property access and removal of the damaged seawall. There are alternatives that can be sought for some repairs but these only work in certain situations. The majority of seawall damage documented from Irma involves the base of the wall buckling and bowing out into the water or a full-blown collapse. This type of damage is usually only remedied by a full replacement of the wall.

An Alternative is Sought and Approved

Vinyl seawalls are a relative newcomer to the industry dominated by concrete, metal and wood. This new composite has proven effective as a barrier for thousands of applications including the renovation at Fort Myers Country Club. The city of Cape Coral estimates that over 1,000 homes required seawall repair or replacement. Estimates for total cost were beyond $50 million, so alternatives were sought to help homeowners. Upon further analysis, the city agreed that a vinyl seawall can save the homeowner 25% over conventional concrete seawalls.

Once the public works and community development departments signed off on the structural integrity of the new products, Cape Coral City Council approved the new material for seawall replacement. The greatest considerations aside from strength were aesthetics. Vinyl seawalls have a corrugated surface – a stark change from flat concrete, but they found little opposition from residents. Most vinyl seawalls can be installed from the land side saving the need for a floating barge. This helps save both money and time in the typical replacement process for concrete seawalls.

The Only Seawall Insurance Available

Seawall Damage From Hurricane Irma
Source: FEMA.gov

Irma’s visit to Florida has since prompted greater vigilance by homeowner’s and potential home buyers. Seawall inspections have increased throughout Lee County and surrounding areas, particularly in old Cape Coral where many seawalls are more than 50 years old. For those buying property in the area with the intention of knocking down the original home to build new, contractors and homeowners are opting to repair, reinforce, or even replace the aging seawall to provide greater peace of mind before beginning construction on their dream home.

Historically, September is the most active month of the Atlantic Hurricane Season. We will certainly have an eye on the tropics as we progress through the busiest part of our storm season. We pray for a calm second half of the 2018 Hurricane season as many residents still wait their turn for seawall repairs and replacement.