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Sean Kirst: Florida mayor with Buffalo bond tackles hard road back after Irma

NAPLES, Fla. – John Rementeria sent the email Thursday night, from his home. He is a retired New York City firefighter, decorated for bravery. He was standing near Trinity Church, in the shadow of the World Trade Center, when the north tower fell on Sept. 11, 2001.

Rementeria lost 35 close friends, "good buddies," in the terrorist attacks that killed thousands. In the aftermath, he was assigned to collect human remains from nearby rooftops. He spent months helping with recovery and cleanup. Before long, he said, he began coughing up "gray gunk."

Plagued by breathing problems, his back aching from a spinal injury during a rescue attempt, he retired in 2002. He built a house near Naples and settled there with his family. They were home last week when Hurricane Irma blew in, with devastating winds that reached 140 mph. Rementeria, like more than 1 million others, was left for days without power.

Throughout the week, the heat inside his house hovered around a suffocating 90. Only a block or two away, he said, some of his neighbors had electricity. Conditions reached a point where he struggled to breathe. At that point, frustrated, he wrote an email to Mayor Bill Barnett of Naples, seeking help:

"Two disabled police officers … also live on my street," wrote Rementeria, 60. "We desperately need power in our homes. Two of us have asthma from the dust clouds during the collapse. Please help us!"

Retired New York City firefighter John Rementeria: A long week in a hot home, after a hurricane. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Early Friday, in his office, Barnett read the email and tried to find a resolution. He has become a point man for these kinds of concerns after the storm, a civic leader with a powerful Western New York connection.

In a Gulf Coast region beloved to many Niagara Frontier retirees and travelers, he is married to Chris Franczyk Barnett, a cousin to Buffalo Common Council member David Franczyk and Erie County Judge Thomas Franczyk.

Barnett keeps a Buffalo Bills piggy bank on the shelf in his office. The mayor and first lady of a legendary American vacation spot have a favorite vacation spot themselves. They rent a cottage for a few weeks, every summer, in Angola.

"It's beautiful," Barnett said. "I know every step of Evangola State Park."

In his office Friday, he began working on Rementeria's request. The retired firefighter does not live within the borders of the city itself, with a population of about 21,800, but in an unincorporated suburb. Barnett reached out to officials in Collier County, and to friends in local fire departments, and to officials with Florida Power & Light, the regional utility.

An FPL employee responded, promising in an email to make sure Rementeria's plight is "escalated on my mind."

Yet Rementeria's house remained dark Saturday, indicative of the larger struggle in Naples. President Trump shook hands with Barnett Thursday at the Naples Municipal Airport, amid a presidential tour of disaster sites in Florida. Local officials made sure Trump knew the extent of the damage.

 

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At last count, 49 percent of city residents were without power. The storm ripped down power lines, tore apart rooftops and ripped out beautiful trees by the roots. Traffic signals at major intersections didn't work. With many gas stations shut down, uniformed police maintained generally good-natured order in a long line of cars at a downtown service station.

The shoreline mansions of the wealthy, usually hidden by walls of trees, were suddenly visible from the road. The municipal pier, restored only a few years ago, suffered such damage that it may need to be rebuilt.

And in unincorporated Naples, beyond the city, the most vulnerable of residents received the hardest hit.

"There is a mobile home park that is no more," Barnett said.

But he offered quiet thanks that no deaths in his city had been attributed to Irma.

All told, Barnett said, rebuilding Naples probably will cost far more than $100 million. He predicted the city will be operating in a relatively normal way by the time "snowbirds" begin arriving from the North. But he added this proviso:

"You'll certainly know there was a hurricane."

Barnett is from White Plains. He built his Buffalo connection through his wife, a native of Kaisertown who left Western New York for Florida in 1973 with her first husband, "a plumber who saw the future."

After that marriage ended, Chris Franczyk met Barnett, former owner of a Toyota dealership and now her husband of 35 years. Naples has a system of government in which a city manager calls the shots on day-to-day operations, while the mayor serves as a kind of elected chairman of the City Council.

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Barnett, 77, who started off with a seat on the Council, has been elected mayor four times. A Republican, he has served in the city's top elected office for so long that many residents simply call him "Mayor Bill."

Nothing in that tenure – no standard issues of planning or zoning or growth – comes anywhere close to what Naples faces after the hurricane. While the city ordered an evacuation just before the storm, with the timing of that order triggering some debate, Barnett and his wife – joined by their cats and their bulldog, Zsa Zsa – rode out Irma with other civic officials at a downtown hotel.

"The mayor needs to stay with the ship," Barnett said.

The couple had witnessed hurricanes before. But Irma – with its sideways rain, with winds strong enough to bend metal – was beyond anything they'd ever seen.

Strangest of all was the moment when the eye of the hurricane passed overhead, when safety officials told those in the hotel that they had six minutes, beneath blue skies, to allow their dogs a few quick moments of outdoor relief.

"If you can make one point," Chris Franczyk Barnett said, "it's to say how much we appreciate all the love and spirit and prayers we're getting from Buffalo."

The Barnetts lost power in their own home and borrowed the house of a friend near City Hall. Much of their time is spent on intensely personal requests. They checked in on a 96-year-old, for instance to make sure she was all right.

They also helped a city resident, in treatment for cancer, secure a boarding pass Saturday for a flight out of Fort Myers. They have tried to accommodate the many volunteer efforts to feed and support hundreds of first responders and emergency workers in the community.

Buffalo native Chris Franczyk Barnett (right) and her husband, Naples Mayor Bill Barnett, welcome home Bully, a stray black cat that hangs around City Hall, after Hurricane Irma. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

For John Rementeria, and thousands of others with no power, there is little choice except to wait.

In 1999, Rementeria was honored for bravery by the Fire Department of New York after he crawled through an upstairs hallway in a burning house to check for survivors.

He received a medal after he found a woman, overcome by smoke, lying on the floor. He insists several of his fellow firefighters – including Jim Gray, who would later die at the twin towers – deserved that honor as much as he did

Three years later, in a burning house in Brooklyn, Rementeria tripped over a board in a hallway. Another firefighter, in the chaos, fell on top of him. Rementeria broke bones in his back and in his knees.

In pain, plagued by those injuries and breathing problems from ground zero, he retired to Naples with his wife, Wini, and their daughters, Alaina and Jill.

Mayor Bill Barnett reads call for help from retired firefighter John Rementeria; video by Robert Kirkham

Sixteen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, he witnessed a hurricane that left much of the region in an eerie netherworld, without electricity.

"I can't sleep, and I can't breathe," Rementeria said of the heat and humid air, inside his house.

By Saturday, he and Wini were thinking about getting out, about driving north until they found a hotel with power and air conditioning. Many others in Florida are in a similar bind, waiting in smothering heat for electrical workers who turn into quiet heroes once their trucks appear on any street.

As for the mayor and his wife, they paused Friday to greet a black cat they call Bully at the steps of City Hall. The cat is a stray. The staff adopted him a year ago when he showed up at the door. He vanished when the storm blew in, leaving those who cared for him in Naples to fear the worst.

He is back, alert but shaken, not so different from his town.

Sean Kirst is a columnist for The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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