National media attention has moved well beyond the disaster called Hurricane Ian. But as a seasonal resident of Sanibel, the 19 mile-long barrier island on the Gulf Coast of Florida, I want to offer this personal, impressionistic, unscientific, apolitical assessment of the island’s recovery six months after Ian, and begin to contemplate how its future might unfold.
Ian made landfall just north of Sanibel around 3 pm on September 28, 2022. One of the worst storms in Florida’s history, it packed winds of 155 miles per hour, just shy of Category 5 speeds, and propelled a storm surge that, in the post-hurricane parlance, “overwashed” Sanibel – that is, submerged it in seawater.
The devastation left in the hurricane’s wake is hard to fathom, much less describe, even this long after the event. One hundred and forty-nine people in the state of Florida alone were killed. Thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed, families displaced, businesses ruined, familiar landscapes transformed. Total damage valuations are incalculable, but reach into the hundreds of billions. Sanibel represents but a small slice of this overall picture, but a telling one nonetheless.
The old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words simply doesn’t apply on Sanibel. A thousand pictures might equal a few words, but pictures are too localized, too site-specific, to capture the varieties of damaging transformation that Ian wreaked on the place, and only words can describe the disorientation that someone familiar with the island will feel when confronted with Sanibel today. So you’ll get only words here – more than a thousand.
It needs to be said that much has been accomplished in these first six months. Ian ruptured the three-mile, two-lane, partially elevated causeway that connects Sanibel to mainland Fort Myers in five different places, but within a matter of weeks – as contrasted with the months or even years that many initially feared – it was repaired enough to allow vehicular traffic back onto the island. That was a feat of government in action and logistical expertise that, regardless of one’s political affiliation, should inspire us all.
With Sanibel’s umbilical cord reconnected, recovery could begin in earnest. Most of the utility poles on the island had been felled by the storm, but these were replaced in record time with new concrete synthetic poles, and electricity was relatively quickly restored, as was the local water supply. Again, a testament to the competence and tenacity of local authorities and public utilities.
There remain two broad categories of damage on the island: damage from wind, which ripped off roofs and flattened or denuded trees and other foliage, and damage from the storm surge, which flooded every structure and piece of equipment on the island with between five and 20 feet of filthy, silt-laden seawater. The results varied depending on whether a particular structure was “elevated” – that is, built to stand well above ground level in anticipation of just such an event – or not. Ground level structures (homes, stores, businesses) – of which there were many on Sanibel due to its long history and local interest in preserving it – were flooded, their interiors impregnated with saltwater and ensuing mold, or simply pushed from their foundations by the surge and crushed. Elevated structures had at least their ground floors flooded with saltwater, destroying everything from vehicles and other personal goods to mechanical equipment like a/c, water heaters, elevators, and pool pumps. Ground level pools quickly filled with silt. Saltwater permeated the soil.
The combination of wind and sea stripped, shredded, or flattened a high percentage of the island’s plant life. This is the first and most shocking visual evidence of the catastrophe to greet today’s visitor. Periwinkle Way, the island’s main commercial corridor leading west from the causeway, once a natural tunnel through lush buttonwoods, palms, mangroves, and live oaks that towered over the road like the walls of a cathedral, is now open to the sky and to the devastation on either side. Buildings never seen before from the road, having always been hidden modestly behind their dense walls of green, now stand naked to the world, as though embarrassed, some in shambles, others outwardly untouched, their shelter of trees and dense underbrush now cut to stumps or fallen and dragged into huge piles, some still waiting, after all these months, to be loaded by mechanical jaws onto the gargantuan black haulage trucks that roam the roadways like Sisyphean monsters, their task seemingly endless.
Debris removal is ongoing and constant, a multi-level public-private undertaking that is finally making a dent in the immense mass of natural and man-made material that was shattered by Ian and must be laboriously gathered and transported. (One of the mysteries of the recovery – blithely unquestioned by most locals – is is exactly where off-island these millions of cubic yards of semi-toxic junk are being taken and dumped.)
Structural and household debris – what’s left of all those damaged homes, destroyed businesses, torn-up asphalt and ruined drywall – still lies in piles along the roads after these many months of collection efforts. There are far fewer of these mounds than just a month or two ago, and those that remain are smaller, but they’re still there, almost as gruesome as bodies, and some multi-acre aggregation sites on the west end of the island are still heaped with dark, rotting debris to a height of two stories. Multiple deadlines for getting junk to the roadside for pickup have been imposed by local and state authorities and then quietly ignored, as the stream of wreckage continues even as it dwindles.
Vegetative debris is equally daunting. Huge stumps of trees, too heavy even for the giant black-jawed cranes, still lie on roadsides waiting for some mode of removal that’s hard to imagine. In addition to untold thousands of carefully-landscaped private yards, thousands of acres of cabbage palms, buttonwoods, and other indigenous and imported plant life on this mostly undeveloped sanctuary island have died or will soon die in the salt-permeated soil, browned-out victims of what looks to the passing eye like a vast, fatal blight. Cutting and removal efforts have thus far focused on roadsides, but one imagines it will take years for the dead undergrowth and fallen trees to decompose or be bulldozed away, and where that’s happened there’s naked mud where palms once swayed.
It’s possible, once you’ve spent enough time here, to imagine that you’ve simply been transported to a more arid island than Sanibel once was – more sand and brown, less green; more sun, less shade. The eye adjusts to the lowered horizon of the treetops, the strangely opened spaces, the landmarks changed and seemingly rearranged, making driving around an exercise in rediscovery.
There’s also far less traffic than usual, the recently reopened beaches are wide and mostly empty, the aisles at Jerry’s, the one functioning grocery store, as quiet and orderly as on an early morning in October. There was no Spring Break here this year, and a lot of us didn’t miss it. All the curfews have been lifted, but while 9 pm was always “Sanibel midnight,” now it’s more like 2 in the morning.
The island’s human infrastructure is a slow work in progress. A handful of restaurants have reopened, out of the hundred or so that once operated on Sanibel. There is no longer an on-island pharmacy, as the local CVS shows no sign of reopening – an expression of corporate indifference that strikes many here as callous. There is that one functioning grocery (the other one, Bailey’s, part of the island’s history and hugely popular, is not slated to reopen until 2025). There is no local postal delivery; the ground-level post office was flooded and residents line up at a makeshift facility inside a shipping container to collect their mail. There is no dry cleaner or laundry. There is no longer a Dairy Queen (one of the few franchises that was allowed to operate on the island). There are, however, a couple of functioning and seemingly well-used golf courses – testament, perhaps, to the indefatigable human longing for normalcy.
Normalcy, however, still seems a long way off. And one must ask: what path will Sanibel take to get there?
There’s a cart-and-horse issue at the heart of the island’s hope for the future: business (including local resorts and rentals) can’t thrive here without tourism, and tourism won’t return without business to attract and accommodate it. As an island deeply reliant on snowbird tourism for its economic health, Sanibel will no doubt seek to project an image of full recovery well before it’s actually achieved, and that will require some serious risk-taking on the part of the investor base that will be needed to finance physical reconstruction of the island. It will also risk overbalancing the island’s economy in favor of business redevelopment, as has happened in other post-hurricane settings, turning it into a gulf coast version of Myrtle Beach.
An alternative, much discussed locally, would be to use the current calamity as an opportunity to double down on Sanibel’s preservationist heritage, resist a return to pre-Ian commercial normalcy, embrace the vicious winnowing of plant life that was never meant to be here, and make the island into an even more exclusive, if more austere, enclave of natural reserves and high-end residences.
But further down that line of thought is the nagging realization that a regular pummeling is the natural fate of what is for good reason called a “barrier” island, that humans are only here at nature’s dispensation, and that the number and severity of storms like Ian will only increase in the years of climate change to come. Hurricane Charley, the last big hurricane to ravage Sanibel, in 2004, made landfall at almost the exact location as Ian.
Many homeowners here have had enough, either out of inability to pay for repairs, inability to find affordable insurance, or unwillingness to risk living through something similar in the future. Some don’t have the time to wait for Sanibel to return to what they knew. Over 300 homes are on the market on Sanibel, an increase of 20% in just the last month, at a median price of just over $1 million, an increase over 13% in a month.[*]
The question is, who will buy these homes, and why?
In the end, what seems most likely here on the edge of the “Free State of Florida” is that no one faction or authority will be in control, capitalist opportunism will govern, and Sanibel will slowly grope its way back to its former delicate balance between self-congratulatory perservationism and cheerful profiteering.
But meanwhile, Sanibel is quiet for this time of year, the traffic coming across the causeway consists mostly of contractors’ vans and trucks, the workers who will repair the place, and not the vacationers who may one day follow. Our neighborhood on the west end of the island still looks like a village in the Ukraine after a Russian drone strike – brutally truncated trees that used to rise a hundred feet, great swaths of mud and silt where shady, manicured gardens used to be, the occasional piles of household debris still popping up like mushrooms after a rain.
But back from the road, you see the homes that were hidden before, some still beautiful, some ravaged, see the work being done to rebuild them, to plow away the silt and re-plant, the determination and money being applied to recreate what we knew here. The hibiscuses in our yard still bloom beautifully, improbably, from the salty soil. The beach stretches wider than ever toward the gulf that lies quiet now, but we walk it more warily, in a way more gratefully, knowing that these quiet days are not permanent, that the people and the storms will one day return.