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Hurricane Eta brings wind, rain

By CJ HADDAD and NATHANMAYBERG - | Nov 18, 2020

A wind-swept sailboat after colliding with the Matlacha bridge. Matlacha/Pine Island Fire Control District


Early last week, tropical storm-turned hurricane-turned tropical storm Eta took a long and winding road across the Gulf Coast that eventually led to Southwest Florida’s door — twice.

First on Sunday, Nov. 8, and then again on Wednesday, Nov. 11, Eta delivered roughly 60 mph gusting winds and flood-inducing downpours across the region before picking up steam northward towards Tampa Bay.

It was the first named storm that severely impacted Southwest Florida in an extremely active Atlantic Hurricane Season.

The School District of Lee County closed on Monday due to Eta’s forces the night before and on Wednesday — the hurricane makeup day from earlier in the week — Eta once again disturbed classes and forced the district to release students 3 hours early and cancel all evening programs.

After making its way through Tampa and then northwest across the state, Eta traveled out to the Atlantic and eastward, away from the coastal states.

In Cape Coral, canals began to rise Wednesday– some even beginning to spill over to laws and backyards.

Areas of Southwest Florida including Fort Myers Beach and Matlacha experienced storm surge that saw streets flooded and anchored boats tossed about. A sailboat in Matlacha even found itself wedged under the Matlacha Bridge.

According to Pine Island Matlacha Fire Chief Ben Mickuleit, the island had quite a few isolated areas of flooding, due to Hurricane Eta.

“There weren’t any other road blockages from power lines or trees,” he said. “We had two sailboats that broke anchor and were blown into the bridge. One was able to be secured to a dock at the Bridgewater Inn. The other wasn’t able to be secured and is still lodged next to the bridge. I called Red Cross and they were able to assist the owner since he lived aboard. We had PI units, LCSO, LCEMS, along with a few other local agencies.”

According to Mickuleit, the Matlacha bridge was shut down temporarily as a result of the vessel collision combined with a strong band of high winds.

Shawna Garretson, manager of the Bridgewater Inn in Matlacha, said by the time she arrived at work at 8:45 a.m. Wednesday, the damage had already been done by the sailboat that came loose in the winds caused by Hurricane Eta.

“The bigger sailboat hit the middle of the bridge,” Garretson said. “They moved the big boat and there was a deck boat impaled at the foot of the bridge.”

She said increasing storm force winds caused the smaller nearby boat to become unanchored, where it remains stuck. Although Garretson says the bottom portion of the deck where people generally fish has been ripped from the building, they are open for business and currently await repairs on the roped-off deck.

On Wednesday, intersections in the North Fort Myers area resembled wading pools and shut down to traffic. The Sanibel Causeway became a place for large waves to crash upon and was closed for a bit before opening in a limited fashion.

The Cape Coral Fire Department on Wednesday morning responded to a home where a tree from the front yard had fallen on to the roof due to strong winds from Eta.

The city closed the Chiquita Lock Wednesday, reopening the device to boat traffic Thursday morning. The traffic signals on the lock, however, were not working and parts were needed to make them operational, city officials said.

“Boaters are asked to use caution navigating the Lock until the signals can be repaired. Once the necessary parts are acquired, a shutdown will be scheduled to repair the signals,” a release from the city states.

According to officials, Lee County Emergency Management continued to monitor the impacts of the storm throughout the area on Thursday. Lee County Department of Transportation and Lee County Natural Resources Department staff remained in the field, monitoring and responding.

Residents who have debris or vegetation on their property blocking swales, ditches, canals or other surface water conveyances can call the Request for Action Hotline at 239-533-9400 or by visiting lee.gov.

By mid-afternoon, the storm had eased up though it was still carrying persistent rain and high winds, though nothing like earlier.

Shortly before noon, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office blocked off the entrance to the Matanzas Pass Bridge on Fort Myers Beach though the access was reopened. The Sanibel Causeway was briefly closed as well.

As of noon, sections of Main Street and Fisherman’s Wharf on Fort Myers Beach was flooded.

The Pierside Grill and Famous Blowfish Bar experienced waves from the Gulf of Mexico high enough to splash water inside the restaurant.

“Big winds pushed the furniture out all over the place,” said restaurant partner Martin York.

Aside from some water and sand to be cleaned out, York said the restaurant is good to go on Thursday.

“We’ll be ready to open at 10:30 a.m.,” York said.

Lorna Littrell, a local professional photographer, took pictures of the waves as they splashed off the Gulf of Mexico and over the pier and into the restaurant.

She said she and her husband drove downtown to see the beach. They saw Crescent Street was flooded and went down to the pier.

When they got to the pier and saw how high the waves were, Littrell said “the wind got so strong on the pier, we couldn’t stand it.”

Lee County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Nestor Montoya said the San Carlos Bridge and Matlacha Bridge were temporarily closed.

As of 12:15 p.m., all bridges in the county were open, he said.

“We are telling motorists to use caution,” Montoya said Wednesday afternoon

Town of Fort Myers Beach Manager Roger Hernstadt said the storm and high tide affected people most living near the bay. Some residents with homes near the bay saw their yards experience flooding and had some property damage, he said.

There were some reports of minor debris blown by the wind that were being picked up by town staff, Hernstadt said.

Hernstadt said there were no reports of any major destruction caused by the storm.

All town roads were open as of 12:30 p.m.

–Pine Island Eagle Editor Paulette LeBlanc contributed to this article.