Governing and Citizenship in a Time of Disaster: the Lessons of Sanibel Island

As the shock visited upon those of us with friends, loved ones, and homes in southwest Florida begins to recede with the floodwaters, what’s left in the wake of Hurricane Ian?

What quickly emerges is a kind of competence and seriousness in governing that seemed to have been permanently lost amidst all the political posturing and vitriol of the last few years. Governor Ron DeSantis, of late known mainly for flying hapless immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard, legislation prohibiting classroom instruction on gender identity, and wreaking tax vengeance on gay-friendly Disney, has looked like a statesman since Ian, lucidly articulate, in command of facts, marshalling and directing the forces of state agencies, lifting hopes, up there on the podium with Biden, who in turn complimented him on his effectiveness. As one vocally conservative Lee County council member said after the storm, “partisanship is out the window.”

It’s amazing what can be accomplished when that happens. Sanibel city council members, only recently mired in petty bickering over book bans and who should be hired as city manager, hold organized, informative press conferences on Facebook every single night, and that new city manager, in his trim goatee and bottom-of-the-duffel Batman t-shirt, sounds like someone who’d prepared his whole life to try to bring a community back from disaster. The Florida Department of Transportation and Lee County are repairing the badly damaged Sanibel Causeway to allow vehicular access to the island by the end of October, a time frame that seemed impossible just days ago.

And suddenly the reason to have a strong federal government is abundantly clear: it’s a repository of the logistical materiel, personnel, and expertise, not to mention the vast sums of money, that will be necessary to rebuild. The Army Corps of Engineers drafted the repair designs for the causeway. The National Guard patrolled Sanibel and other SWF communities, assisting local law enforcement in keeping them secure. FEMA, a creature of the Deep State if ever there was one, is a source of hope and relief where otherwise there would be none. The much-derided SNAP food assistance program, criticized for inefficiency and fraud, now looks like a lifeline for many.

But recovery from this disaster will take more. It will take local, ground-up citizenship, when the very nature of good citizenship suddenly looks very different. It looks like the owner of the bike rental shop on Sanibel — where the only way to get around these days is by bicycle or on foot – who stood up in the city council session and said that anyone could take a bike from his shop and leave it wherever they needed to. It looks like the local yard maintenance company that sends an email to its customers saying that they’ll get to their houses and start cleaning up, and that we’re all in this together. It looks like the homeowner who takes time from ripping out his ruined drywall to check on a friend’s house a mile’s walk away.

As so often in such circumstances, what begins to emerge is a feeling of pride of place, resilience in the face of abject defeat. Lucky though we knew we were, and grateful, to sit in the sunset on a Sanibel beach with friends and family through all those warm winters, we couldn’t really know just how lucky, and to look now at photos of those times is wrenching in a way that comes from pride as well as loss, from a sense of determination that, even though they’re beyond us now, there will be times like those again.

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  1. Pingback: Sanibel Island, Six Months After Hurricane Ian | Mortal Coil

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