Sanibel residents return to Hurricane Ian-ravaged island by boat while awaiting bridge repair
With Sanibel’s causeway bridge still out of commission from damage during Hurricane Ian, many islanders in Southwest Florida scrambled to secure transport by boat this weekend, the first time they were allowed home.
Utility trucks kicked up freshly settled dust while dodging pedestrians and bicyclists who trekked through Sanibel’s streets to visit their damaged homes over the weekend, their first time on the island since Hurricane Ian.
The barrier island of about 6,000 remains severed from the mainland after 150 mph winds drove a storm surge that collapsed Sanibel’s causeway bridge nearly two weeks ago. But more than 500 workers arrived on the island this weekend, reaching as far as the causeway’s third spoil island – more than two miles from the mainland.
Boats, planes and helicopters allowed some first responders, utility workers and residents access after city officials last week opened limited travel to the withered island – where plastic bags, powerlines, stray furniture and a layer of dried, gray muck remain strewn throughout the former wildlife sanctuary.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis promised last week to restore the bridge to Sanibel by the end of this month. The Florida Transportation Department completed similar repairs on Pine Island’s bridge last week, allowing nonprofits – including World Central Kitchen and Rapid Response Crisis Control – to set up relief efforts.
“I don't agree with the governor on a lot of other things, but in this case he's supporting this community and the residents of Florida by providing the help we need,” said Dana Souza, Sanibel’s city manager.
Residents flocked to the island just as the National Guard left Wednesday after providing initial assistance with security, a task now restored to local police and 10 Lee County deputies. More than 500 linemen set up a tent city outside The Sanibel School, where they will live.
“It’ll be a little Spartan,” Souza said Sunday, “but it will be sufficient for them to live on the island while they're doing the work.”
Ozzie Fischer, a South Seas Island Resort fishing guide, ferried people by boat from the Captiva hotel.
“The first time they see it, they're not mentally prepared, especially for the amount of damage,” he said. “They see it on TV, but I don't think it really hits anybody until they visually see it.”
Fischer didn’t see himself as just a ferry operator; he was taking two to five people onto the island each day, and helped them clean out their waterlogged homes. It’s the right thing to do, he said.
Fischer was one of many charter boat owners permitted to charge a fee for services, but recreational owners were relying on donations to transport people through the debris-ridden waters.
“We have so many boats that are in the water leaking fuel. You have all these houses on septic and all this flooding,” he said. “You have a lot of chemicals, a lot of things going in these waters, and we're not going to know the damage until maybe a year down the line.”
Digitized damage assessments from the county website, Souza cautioned, are not binding with FEMA, contractors or insurance companies; separate assessments need to be completed. Souza said even private roads should be cleared by early this week.
He assured contractors more hurricane passes will be issued soon and announced residents will not need permits to begin interior demolition. The city, he said, wants residents to be able to take swift action against the black mold spreading inside flooded buildings. Contractors’ concerns about port-a-potties remain a work in progress, Souza said.
As new regulations maintain the standing 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew and allow people to stay on the island overnight, Souza reminded returning residents to stay hydrated. Five people needed medical attention due to dehydration or overheating this week, he said, and one needed to be evacuated by helicopter.
The island’s foliage and natural shade was killed by waves of saltwater – which have since settled in drainage ditches – swept in by the hurricane. With miles of rubble in every direction, one island convenience store offered free Gatorade, water and snacks to residents who made it back to check on the homes they were forced to abandon.
“The big thing that stops people is Gatorade,” said Hana St. Gean, one of ShackIt’s managers.
She and her husband shuttled into work across the causeway from their home in Fort Myers every day for years. This week, their commute required hitching a ride on a friend’s boat.
“Everybody who's on-island right now helping had to come by boat and at personal expense,” St. Gean said, “because they're so motivated to see their property.”
The hurricane blew the walls off Ellen Kenner’s waterfront condominium, taking her belongings with it.
“It's instant Marie Kondo decluttering,” she said,
Kenner, a clinical psychologist, said joking about tragedy is a part of processing it. She said she doesn’t care about what was lost in the storm, but that she’s grateful to be alive.
“We love Sanibel,” said the island resident of seven years. “We still don’t want to move.”
Amid other concerns, Kenner, remembered election season is approaching while sifting through what files did survive the surge. She is worried about how residents will be able to vote in the midterm elections.
“Where are the voting places?” Kenner asked. “They're not on Sanibel anymore.”
Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith promised residents she would reach out to Tommy Doyle, Lee County’s supervisor of elections, to begin accommodating Sanibel’s more than 6,000 eligible voters, some of whom gather daily in the small, carpeted Fort Myers hotel conference room where city meetings were being held. Smith and some residents are living in the rooms above until their dilapidated, mold-ridden homes become inhabitable. Others drove to the meeting to listen to the day’s developments or ask questions.
Smith opened Sunday night’s city meeting as she has for the last 10 days – by reminding attendees how long it’s been since Hurricane Ian hit their island. Most don’t need the reminder. They call out or mumble “Day 11” in unison with Smith.
The audience of utility workers, long-time residents and business owners represented a fraction of the collaboration between public and private sectors, Smith said.
“It’s just a great example of what Sanibel is all about, and what differentiates us from other communities,” she said.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. You can donate to support our students here.