When the storm touched down in Florida in late September, it upended thousands of lives and businesses — jewelers included. Rapaport Magazine checks in with local store owners to see how they’re faring in the wake of the disaster.
The day before Hurricane Ian made landfall, Michelle Meltesen was getting her hair done for a trade show she planned to attend in Miami. Neither she — a jewelry sales rep — nor her stylist, both locals in Fort Myers, Florida, thought Ian would amount to much.
How wrong they were.
“We were joking about priorities as everyone else was boarding up and leaving town,” she recollects. “I was there through [Hurricane] Charley in 2004, and my husband and I were
there through Irma in 2017. I lost trees and fences, but no insurance claims were ever made — that’s how insignificant those storms were.”
The next day, as news stations reported that Ian had intensified over the Gulf of Mexico while traveling toward southwestern Florida, it became clear she wasn’t going anywhere.
By mid-afternoon on September 28, Ian made landfall near the barrier island of Cayo Costa, a state park. From there, it went on to wreak havoc on the surrounding areas of Pine Island, Port Charlotte, Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Sanibel and Naples.
The storm may have been the impetus for the devastation, but the surge that followed did the heavy lifting. Flooding wiped out 5,000 homes and caused massive damage to twice as many more, according to local authorities. Raging waters forced boats to pile on top of each other — often on residential streets — and scattered more property, including cars, in every direction. And then there was the human toll: Ian claimed well over 100 lives.
The hurricane produced levels of rainfall seen once in 1,000 years — as high as 18 inches in 12 to 24 hours for some areas — and maximum winds of 150 miles per hour, reported the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which documented Ian’s destruction. Ian went on record as the fifth-strongest hurricane to strike the US, the strongest hurricane to hit Florida since Michael in 2018, and the first Category 4 hurricane to hit southwest Florida since Charley.
Despite this tragedy, many affected jewelers remain grateful. Shannon Green of Shannon Green Collection in Naples is rebuilding her store, which sustained 4 feet of water (her home was untouched).
“We didn’t have the devastation that [Hurricane] Katrina delivered to New Orleans. We had no looting,” she says. “We are getting back on our feet rather quickly.”
Sheltering in place
Many of the jewelers who spoke to Rapaport Magazine did not evacuate. Instead, store owners did what they could to prepare: Saran-wrapping valuables into locked vaults, boosting furniture off the ground, boarding up windows, and taping off doors to divert water.
Meltesen’s husband, a firefighter, was on call and determined to stay for his job, but urged his wife to take their two dogs and leave their Fort Myers home; it was two blocks from both the Whiskey Creek canal and the Caloosahatchee River. She didn’t leave until her power went out right before the surge started.
“I tried to lift my 110-pound dog up on a countertop but couldn’t,” she says. “Then I was afraid my phone would die, and I saw sparks from power lines behind us.”
Fortunately, she was not caught in flooding and was able to drive to a warehouse for ambulances and fire trucks, where she rode out the rest of the storm.
In Naples, Green sat safely at home watching her store security cameras online until her power went out. At that point, she knew Ian was coming her way, but there was nothing to do. “People who tried to leave drowned,” she says.
The next day, she went to the store and was gobsmacked by the stench of sewage and saltwater, which had forced their way in through windows and doors. The shop’s roof was intact because it was only three years old, and the structure itself had fared well because of its concrete-block construction.
“Storms have their own personalities,” Green remarks. “Our store was in another location in 2017 when Irma hit, and it took our roof completely off.”
In Sanibel, Scot Congress of Congress Jewelers sent wife Melissa to stay off-island with family while he stayed home with their golden retriever. Their house is located behind their 4,000-square-foot store. Flooding occurred at both, and with power outages and spotty cell service throughout south Florida, his family endured an excruciating full day of no contact. “For 24 hours, nobody knew if I was alive,” he says.
Dan Schuyler and his wife Sharon, who live in Fort Myers and own jewelry store Lily & Co. in Sanibel, may have had the most harrowing experience. After taking measures that their insurance company had recommended to safeguard their shop, the couple went home to their canal-front property. Around 5:30 p.m. on the day Ian tore through town, four feet of water flooded their home, and the sound of what Schuyler thought was the eye of the storm howled above them like a freight train. Huddled in a back bedroom, the couple and their dogs swam to the garage to shelter in an SUV. When the water covered the steering wheel, they abandoned the vehicle for fear of water pinning the doors shut, returning to the back bedroom. They are fortunate to be alive.
“This is our fourth hurricane since we moved to Florida,” he says. “You really can’t prepare for one.”
Assessing the damage
In the aftermath, many affected jewelers are cleaning out and rebuilding homes, businesses, or both. Meltesen’s house still stands, and the walls have been repaired; she and her husband endured the brutal process of removing toxic-mold-covered floors and drywall. Green was able to get contractors to come gut her store the day after the storm.
The Congresses’ properties are still uninhabitable. But to keep all 17 employees on the payroll — their biggest priority — they’re renting another store in a less-affected area of Fort Myers.
“You need to be there for your folks,” says Melissa Congress. As of press time, they were planning to hold an opening celebration for the interim location on the first Friday in December.
Pat Zambuto has owned The Cedar Chest in Sanibel for 47 years; she and her husband — who died 30 years ago — opened it together. Zambuto’s home is in Cape Coral, on a canal. She and her dog rode out the storm at a hotel in Fort Myers. Thankfully, her home is fine, but her shop flooded.
“I had short notice to get everything I could out of my 1,600-square-foot store,” she relates. She’s since been able return to Sanibel to clear out the damage and merchandise, but her work remains unfinished.
“I have to go back twice more,” she says. “Then I have to organize and start fulfilling online orders. Every day, people try to order — to support us — but we can’t ship anything because we can’t get to the jewelry; it’s locked in a safety deposit box. It’s so frustrating. But I have my house and my dog when so many others lost homes and businesses.”
The Schuylers know they are lucky to have survived Ian. But they won’t be rebuilding their home or their brick-and-mortar business, which was in its 17th year of operation.
Lily & Co. earned a reputation for the brightly colored jewels and artwork it sold, and for its love of dogs. Its namesake was a labradoodle called Lily, who featured prominently in its advertising, and local papers had named the business “Best of the Islands” in jewelry for 14 consecutive years. The Chamber of Commerce had even designated the store the best jeweler in Sanibel a week before the storm.
After Ian subsided and the Sanibel Causeway collapsed, Schuyler hitched a ride on a boat to the beach at Tarpon Bay Road and walked to the store to assess the damage. Along the way, he found jewelry busts littering the street. When he reached the shop, the scene reminded him of the film Apocalypse Now. Nothing was salvageable. All he could do was pick up trash.
“This is my 44th year in jewelry. I’m 62 years old,” he says. “I don’t think I can do it again. I’m at a loss for words. This $4 million business, this icon for the island…everything is gone.”
A helping hand
Fortunately, other southwest Florida jewelers whose homes and operations were unaffected reached out to help peers. Among them was Mark Loren of Mark Loren Designs in Fort Myers, whose shop is 12 miles from Lily & Co.
Loren closed for two weeks so he and his employees could aid others, including Schuyler. Loren and some staffers took a boat to Sanibel to help Schuyler shovel debris curbside and clean his salvageable merchandise. Loren also opened his vault to Schuyler, giving him a secure place to stow valuables. Loren even hired Schuyler’s store manager when there was no option but to put Lily & Co. staff on unemployment.
“Another 12 inches of water, and it could have been my store,” says Loren.
Similarly, the Congresses are grateful to Brian Denney of high-end jewelry wholesaler Gems of Note, whose Naples home and business were a mile away from the water.
“Brian allowed us to keep our inventory in his safe and work out of there,” says Scot Congress. “He bought us lunch for several days.”
For Denney, there was no option but to lend a hand. “It could have just as easily been me,” he says, echoing Loren.
Meanwhile, Brad and Colbi Congress, who own Bradley’s Jewelers in Fort Myers and whose home and business were relatively unscathed, spearheaded an initiative to help hurricane-harmed Floridians obtain hot meals. Their newly crowned “Pitch’n for a Chick’n” program has provided dozens
of rotisserie chickens to community members in need.
“The storm damage and stories of survivorship are eye-opening,” says Brad Congress.
And as Scot and Melissa Congress rebuild their business, home, and lives, many in Sanibel credit them with preserving a different treasure: the torah of Temple Bat Yam. When storms brew in south Florida, the temple takes its torah to the Congresses’ vault, wrapping it in plastic and setting it on a high shelf to elude flood waters.
When NBC News heard the story, it sent a crew to south Florida before Yom Kippur to witness the opening of the vault — and hopefully, the discovery of an undamaged torah. As cameras rolled, the Congresses found the divine documents bone-dry.
Could this providential revelation be one of the reasons they’ve been able to reopen their store so quickly? Nobody can say for sure, but Scot is cautiously optimistic. “Saving the torah certainly didn’t hurt.”
After hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit the US in 2017, Jewelers of America (JA) and the Diamond Council of America (DCA) created the Jewelers Relief Fund to aid independent jewelers whose stores had sustained physical damage. In light of Hurricane Ian, the fund, which exists as a GoFundMe account, reopened once again to collect donations for affected merchants.
At press time, it was still receiving donations and applications; 21 donors had so far given $4,085, according to JA president and CEO David Bonaparte. All applicants will receive equal funding, though JA declined to reveal how many of them there were to date.
Main image: Storm clouds gather over Florida in this view of Hurricane Ian from space. (Shutterstock)