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The future of Fort Myers Beach: The personal side of progress

FORT MYERS BEACH

It’s been just over three months since Hurricane Ian devastated Southwest Florida. For some in Fort Myers Beach, the aftermath has been the most challenging time of their lives. WINK News is profiling the rebuild of the barrier island town through the eyes and experiences of a local builder.

In part one of the series, Joe Orlandini offered insight into why and how the storm created such mass devastation across the coastal community and what challenges need to be overcome to build back stronger. Investigative Reporter Céline McArthur heads back to Fort Myers Beach to show you how he’s helping families in need rebuild what they lost so that they can stay.

Joe Orlandini (Credit: WINK News)

Joe Orlandini’s specialty is building modern luxury homes that can weather severe storms. He admits he doesn’t love renovation or remodeling work; that’s not normally his thing.

“No, I don’t like them—they’re difficult,” said Orlandini. “Before the storm, I had done, I think I’d done one or two… favors. I get talked into them. And I told myself, ‘I’m never going to touch a reno ever again! ‘I learned my lesson,’ I told myself.”

Then Hurricane Ian tore through the community he loves. He watched neighbors, some of whom don’t have a lot of resources and experience in construction, struggle to figure out how to fix their homes. And he’s now become a go-to person for solutions, with builders and building supplies running low.

That includes Mike and Kathy Dziat. Life after Hurricane Ian has been a struggle for them.

“It was a lot of tears. It was… it’s just heartbreaking,” said Kathy.

Mike Dziat and Celine McArther in the Dziat home on Fort Myers Beach. (credit: WINK News)

The Dziats are from Ohio. After more than fifty years of family getaways to the barrier island, they bought their Fort Myers Beach dream home just before the storm.

“We love it here,” said Kathy. “The people, the beaches, places, this view. We just love it here.”

“Sitting out there in the evening with the dolphins coming up to you,” said Mike. “It was nice.”

They thought they could weather Southwest Florida’s hurricane seasons.

“To be honest, we expected a storm or a few. We just never expected one of this magnitude,” said Kathy. “This is… this was just insane.”

And nearly three months later, the heavily damaged shell of their modular home is all that remains.

“The bones are still here… sort of,” said Kathy with a chuckle. “So, doable. My dad always said, ‘If money could fix it, it’ll be okay.’ We just have to find enough.”

Enough money and enough help. With so many people in need, getting licensed—and available—contractors isn’t easy, especially when you’re new in town. Their real estate agent introduced them to a friend, Fort Myers Beach builder Joe Orlandini.

Orlandini agreed to take a look at the damage. He shared his first impression as he walked through the devastation.

“A lot of the houses are missing addresses, so I can’t tell what’s what,” Orlandini said. “I think it’s this. And then I’m like, ‘Oh, this is not too bad. This pretty easy.’ Turns out it’s this one. Of course, I was bummed.”

Orlandini says raising and leveling a modular home is not a small job.

“I probably personally would have said, ‘I’m not going to fix it.’ I would probably want a new one,” said Orlandini. “It was damaged heavily on the outside of the structure. It had a beating.”

The Dziat home on Fort Myers Beach (Credit: WINK News)

So, Orlandini said he had to consider whether to take on this project.

“And of course, Kathy decided to make it even harder on me when she decided to go sit on the neighbor’s patio,” said Orlandini. “I think she felt that she was hiding from me, and she started crying.”

Kathy shared her perspective on that meeting.

“He just shook his head a lot,” said Kathy. “It’s a lot of work, a big job. Difficult. Just shook his head a lot. I had to step away.”

Kathy: “Because I felt like he wouldn’t be able to do it, or wouldn’t be able to find the time, because I’m sure he’s really busy considering this mass destruction.”

Orlandini said yes. “Her crying basically convinced me to lift it.”

Celine: “What happened when he said yes?”

Kathy: “I cried in the car. Felt some relief and prayed that nothing would change that decision. Crossing my fingers and hoping for the best.”

The couple didn’t have insurance but saved up enough to get started. Getting this structure back on its foundation—alone—will cost up to $20,000 Orlandini’s project schedule was booked, so he decided to go with one of his crews on Thanksgiving morning to begin the work.

“My guys were very creative and came up with a way to get underneath this structure and the building,” said Orlandini. “And we lifted it back up, and we’ve gotten it to about 4 feet. We’ll probably have to go up a few more blocks to get it up about six blocks high.”

The Dziat home after being lifted off the ground. (Credit: WINK News)

Orlandini is satisfied, knowing one more home will survive in the rebuild of Fort Myers Beach.

“It’s going to be saved,” said Orlandini. “So, they’re going to remodel it, and they’re pretty determined. They want to remodel it and make it home again.”

Tom Easton is anxious to make his house a home again, too. He’s lived in Fort Myers Beach for nearly 40 years and never experienced anything close to Hurricane Ian.

Inside Easton’s home after Ian. (Credit: Tom Easton)

“The ceiling was on the floor. The refrigerator had floated out and put a hole in the bedroom wall,” said Easton. “Water came through and washed gullies in my garage that were so deep, my table saw which was in it, I couldn’t even find it at first.”

Orlandini helped him clean it up.

“What would take me months to do, he did in a matter of a day or two,” said Easton.

The home is now ready to rebuild, which is progress, but still overwhelming.

Orlandini and Easton inside Easton’s home on Fort Myers Beach. (Credit: WINK News)

“It’s the anxiety,” said Easton. “It’s what really gets you, you know? Some days you’re good, and things are going well, and other days you look at the whole picture and go, ‘Oh my goodness. I still got all this to do.’”

Orlandini is handling some of the rebuilding, but more importantly, he’s helping Easton navigate the permitting process and connecting him with reputable contractors.

“People that are going to do the A/C, who are going to do the flooring or whatever and get prices because there’s a whole lot of rip-offs out there right now,” said Easton.

As Orlandini talks to people living in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, he becomes increasingly concerned about their well-being.

“I think we’re getting into a point where we’re starting to see a bit of depression, some of the time has gone on. So, things are setting in, a reality that people have lost their homes in the situations that we’re in. And if they don’t have insurance, what they’ve lost and what they’ve worked for is completely gone. So, we need that positive energy.”

Easton says that the positive energy Orlandini is helping to generate is spreading through the community.

“I’ve been blessed with so many good people helping me, I want to get done with my part in my life here so I can pay it forward.”

In WINK’s last story, you were introduced to Kevin Paradiso as he searched through debris for his son’s toys three weeks after Ian hit. Orlandini is his neighbor, helping the family put its house back together.

“The house made it. Structurally, I think, as a whole, as a wood structure, this house is phenomenal. It’s in good shape,” said Orlandini.

But the home did take a severe beating and needed to be gutted. Paradiso walked WINK through in October, and Orlandini did the same in late December.

Paradiso on Fort Myers beach under renovation. (Credit: WINK News)

“It looks like progress,” said Orlandini. “I saw the pile of debris from everything ripped off in the front yard. I realized we have to put a lot back on. So that’s a big job.”

Orlandini hopes to get it all done in about 60 days.

“Joe’s beyond good. And I can’t say enough about that gentleman,” said Paradiso.

Orlandini is also focused on developing the business district, most notably Times Square. He has a plan in the works and taking the time to pay special attention to one iconic landmark.

You can reach out to Céline about this story via email: [email protected]

Part One: The future of Fort Myers Beach: The man with a plan

WINK NEWS 

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