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Sanibel, Captiva residents endure terror but band together to recover from Hurricane Ian

 Sharon Brace has been living on Captiva Island for 22 years. She lives in an area surrounded by vacation homes. As a year-round resident of the island, she found herself isolated as Hurricane Ian cut off communications and tore through Captiva. She stands at Port Sanibel Marina after a 50-minute rescue boat ride with no plan and no place to stay.
Tara Calligan
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Sharon Brace has been living on Captiva Island for 22 years. She lives in an area surrounded by vacation homes. As a year-round resident of the island, she found herself isolated as Hurricane Ian cut off communications and tore through Captiva. She stands at Port Sanibel Marina after a 50-minute rescue boat ride with no plan and no place to stay.

As evacuation efforts begin on Sanibel and Captiva Island, residents are being transported by boat to areas like the Port Sanibel Marina. Hurricane Ian evacuees share their experiences immediately after stepping onto the mainland.

Kelsey Smith has just gotten off a rescue boat at the Port Sanibel Marina with her boyfriend, Nathan Wider, and their dog. Her blond hair is pulled up in a tight bun. Her face, hair and body are smeared in gray-ish mud.

Speaking through tears, she says they live and work on Sanibel. The couple took refuge from the storm at their friend Whitney Jones’ three-story home. Jones is the owner of Whitney's Bait & Tackle on Periwinkle Way.

“We started to basically climb as high as we could to get to safety. It was scary. The water was up to the second floor. It had done a number on all of the houses on the street, " said Smith.

"And this morning when we got up and saw that the water had receded some, we started to walk around the island and when we walked around the island we saw that the island was completely gone and devastated. The houses were destroyed, and people's businesses were destroyed and it looked like a war zone.”

Homes in Sanibel, Fla., were damaged by the hurricane. The island is home to about 6,500 people year-round.
Joe Raedle
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Getty Images
Homes in Sanibel, Fla., were damaged by the hurricane. The island is home to about 6,500 people year-round.

As Smith and Wider walked the ravaged island to see how their homes fared through the hurricane, she heard stories of people who survived in chin-deep water as they sheltered in their houses.

One man asked the couple to alert police, if they saw any, because his brother had passed away during the storm.

Smith found her stilted home in decent shape, but they discovered her boyfriend’s residence was completely destroyed.

The couple heard about a rescue boat pick-up at the Sanibel boat ramp. After some time, they were transported to the mainland by Florida Fish and Wildlife officers who were dropping paramedics off on the island.

“There's still a lot of people who were deciding to stay on the island and hold whatever fort down they have left,” said Smith.

When asked what her plans are now, she said she had not thought that far ahead yet.

“There are no plans," said Smith. "The only plan was to survive, and we survived and, so now we're just going to figure it out and float by the seat of our pants, I guess.”

While Smith endured Hurricane Ian and its aftermath with friends and loved ones, some people found themselves alone throughout the duration of the slow-moving catastrophe.

Sharon Brace has been living on Captiva Island for the past 22 years. Now retired, she lives alone in her home. Her husband, who was a volunteer EMT with the Captiva Fire Department, died three years ago.

Once WINK radio went off the air and Brace lost television and cell service, she was cut off from the outside world, unaware of how horrendous Hurricane Ian’s impacts were until she stepped out onto her front lawn Thursday morning.

“I thought I was perfectly fine and safe, and I was until the fire department found me standing in the front yard looking like this this morning and told me how bad it was and that I was leaving," said Brace. "They gave me 15 minutes to grab a few things and that's it.”

Confused and without much time to process her situation, Brace immediately looked for irreplaceable mementos with the few moments she had left in her home.

Without much time to process her situation, Sharon Brace immediately looked for irreplaceable mementos with the few moments she had left in her home when firefighters came to evacuate her from Captiva Island on Sept. 29, 2022.
Tara Calligan
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Without much time to process her situation, Sharon Brace immediately looked for irreplaceable mementos with the few moments she had left in her home when firefighters came to evacuate her from Captiva Island on Sept. 29, 2022.

"I grabbed my husband's writings, and I grabbed a photo album I put together of pictures of him," said Brace. "And my wedding rings, which I almost forgot. I walked by and there they were, so I grabbed those.”

Now on the mainland at Point Sanibel Marina, Brace is overwhelmed, unsure what her future holds.

“Well, I’m probably not going back. And I don’t really have any place to go.”

It’s still too early to tell how many remain trapped on the barrier islands. On Thursday, Sanibel Police and Fire & Rescue, FWC and a few good Samaritans were ferrying evacuees from destruction to the safety of the mainland.

One such Samaritan is Noah Stewart. He runs a tour boat company with his family on Sanibel called Adventures In Paradise, and it’s been open since 1986. Some of his boats were docked at the Port Sanibel Marina, and what started as recon to see how his family was on Sanibel turned into an island-wide rescue effort.

”I just spent the day shuttling people back and forth to Sanibel and one of the boats that's still working," said Stewart. "And then another gentleman took it upon himself to commandeer one of my boats and is taking people to Captiva, which is fine in the circumstances, but it's kind of funny.”

Noah Stewart runs a tour boat company with his family on Sanibel called Adventures In Paradise, and it’s been open since 1986. Some of his boats were docked at the Port Sanibel Marina, and what started as recon to see how his family was on Sanibel turned into an island-wide rescue effort. He stands in front of a destroyed dock one of his boats was tied to (yellow and white in background) in Port Sanibel marina. 
Tara Calligan
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Noah Stewart runs a tour boat company with his family on Sanibel called Adventures In Paradise, and it’s been open since 1986. Some of his boats were docked at the Port Sanibel Marina, and what started as recon to see how his family was on Sanibel turned into an island-wide rescue effort. He stands in front of a destroyed dock one of his boats was tied to (yellow and white in background) in Port Sanibel marina.

Stewart says he has no intention of stopping the boat trips to and from the island as long as he is of use to emergency officials.

“I'm tired, I'm exhausted, I've been up all day taking people back and forth, but we're going to do it again tomorrow,” said Stewart.

He says he will continue the rescue voyages until he is deemed no longer useful.

"As long as I'm useful, yeah, yeah," said Stewart. "I got other captains and crew. We'll be getting out, getting in touch with them tonight and seeing who's willing to help. I know who is willing to help whoever that guy is that took my boat this morning. He's willing to help.”

One of the common things he noticed about his rescued passengers was the look on their faces.

"Like they seen a ghost or something,” said Stewart.

Since Friday evening, The U.S. Coast Guard has organized a water-borne operation to help Sanibel residents evacuate the island for the mainland to assist efforts of the Sanibel Police and Fire & Rescue.

 Port Sanibel Marina sign damaged after Hurricane Ian on Sept 29, 2022.
Tara Calligan
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Port Sanibel Marina sign damaged after Hurricane Ian on Sept 29, 2022.

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Tara Calligan
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