Thu. Mar 30th, 2023

Sanibel Island, Fla. — Crossing the causeway bridge from the mainland, the first time visitors see this treasured Gulf Coast resort is usually Point Ybel Light, an 1884 tower built on 33 square miles The tip of the land is surrounded by a rich green mix of palm trees and sea grapes. Find the lighthouse and you’re in heaven.

Barrier Island is home to 6,500 locals, but in the winter the number of retirees, tourists and other seasonal residents balloons to 20,000, many of them Midwesterners looking to escape the cold climate. Locals list famous tourists, from Denzel Washington to Johnny Depp, from Eric Clapton to former Vice President Mike Pence.

Shell collectors flock to the beaches of Sanibel, known for its diverse bounty. Bird watchers frequent its nature reserve. Golfer’s Resort. They build multimillion-dollar mansions or buy mobile homes, and then pass businesses at Periwinkle Way, The Sandbar, Tipsy Turtle and Jerry’s Foods.

The lighthouse survived Hurricane Ian, but the storm destroyed much of Sanibel. It tore through homes and apartment complexes, killing some residents. It flooded periwinkle businesses, mobile home parks, condos and resorts, cut off electricity, water and a section of the causeway, and the streets were littered with debris and sticky plaster. No one knows how long it will take to rebuild — officials on the three-mile-long bridge have not said it will be repaired anytime soon — or how long the damage to the spirit of the barrier island will be.

Many people living on the island were evacuated before the storm and were not allowed to return. On Saturday, the fire department warned diehards that Sunday was the last day they would be kicked out of their homes for the temporary ferry service on the Sanibel boat ramp. Clearly, some stayed: They can be seen riding their bikes to places with cell phone signal, the grocery store, or the beach for a makeshift shower.

During a briefing late Saturday at the Fort Myers Hotel at Sanibel’s temporary city hall, city manager Dana Souza emphasized that the island is not yet safe for Sanibel people.

“Sanibel is still under a 24-hour curfew and we are asking people not to go to the island,” Souza said, urging people on the island to evacuate, noting that about a hundred people remained on Saturday. “We don’t want people to stay on the island. We know you’re in a rush to do that, but it’s still a dangerous situation.”

He said four people had died so far, but search and rescue efforts were ongoing and the National Guard was expected to arrive on Sunday. He said police escorted several people off the island on Saturday after they were caught stealing property.

Souza and Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith faces a barrage of questions from homeowners, business owners, renters and seasonal residents about how they can rebuild remotely, many of which depend on repairing the causeway bridge, which one man calls the island the “umbilical cord”.

“When do you temporarily foresee living on the island again, with the causeway sustaining life on the island?” a woman asked.

Exhausted Sanibel Island residents arrived in Fort Myers, Florida, on September 30 and tried to contact family members while mourning the loss. (Video: Reshma Kirpalani/The Washington Post)

Kyle Sweet, 51, lives in the east but works in the west as the director of the Sanctuary Golf Club. The damage to power lines and poles in the West End was far greater and could take months to repair, he said as he drove on the boat ramp on Saturday.

“This area will recover faster than the periwinkle district,” he said.

Along the damaged causeway, volunteers drove ferries, and small groups of residents gathered on the island’s new hot spot, the boat ramp. This is one of the few areas on Sanibel with decent cell phone service.

“They’re all good friends. I don’t know who will stay or leave,” Captain Paul Primo said as he sat with a group.

Primeaux operates Sanibel & Captiva Fishing Charters and has been an island institution for 20 years. Neighbors waiting with him near the dock listened as he assessed which Sanibel landmarks had weathered the storm.

Lazy Flamingo, Tipsy Turtle and other Periwinkle restaurants were hit hard. Jerry survived. He wasn’t sure about George and Wendy’s Sanibel Seafood Grille.

“The Shalimar Hotel is clean-shaven,” Primeaux said, grimly. “Beachview Cottages: Erased.”

“It’s over. I’m on the ground,” he said, adding that “the mud duck survived.”

Bob Butterfield grinned. Butterfield, 38, is a waiter and bartender at the restaurant. Others will rebuild, he’s sure. But that doesn’t mean they’ll actually restore Sanibel.

“It would be weird to see all the new things. It would ruin that old island look,” Butterfield said.

Neighbor Robin Roberts, 39, worked as a bartender at The Island Cow until the fire started in August. Before the owners could rebuild, the hurricane hit.

“It’s just been destroyed now,” she said.

She said Roberts had been working at the Cips Place restaurant recently, but when she visited after the storm, “it looked bad too.”

Bailey’s Grocery Store & Deli survived, said June Bailey, 84, whose family built Sanibel in the 1800s, including the general store that later became Bailey’s and is still family-run.

On Saturday, she escorted her grandson on a ferry to the mainland, while his parents spent another day cleaning their home. Dylan Stevens, 13, said he was a Year 7 student at Sanibel Primary School, but, “I don’t think it’s going to work.”

Bailey, a retired executive secretary now hosting evacuated family members at her home in Fort Myers, isn’t sure how long it will take to rebuild the island. “I just hope they recover quickly,” she said.

Much depends on how quickly officials can rebuild the bridge, a lifeline for Sanibel residents and the economy to mainland Florida.

“The biggest wild card for everyone is the causeway. Repairs are going to be slow,” said charter captain Primeaux. That would delay supplies needed to rebuild everything else, “and the tourists we all depend on,” he said.

Yet even in the aftermath of the disaster, the island maintained its familiar allure: With so much to do, many were distressed to leave.

Lorraine Regan, 57, a physical education teacher and mother of four from coastal New Jersey, retired to Sanibel this summer to live at her late grandmother’s ranch house. She bought an apartment to rent at Seawind Apartments, which is where she ended up surviving the storm, and she was safe on the second floor while her first floor flooded. The hurricane flooded her grandmother’s house with torrential rain, churning its contents and leaving a muddy flood line inches from the ceiling, making it temporarily uninhabitable.

When a search and rescue team stopped to check on her the day after the storm, Regan told them she was living in her apartment, which seemed well-structured. A passing police officer then urged her to leave. But she had already started cleaning the muddy, flooded floor on the first floor and was sleeping upstairs. Before the storm hit on Wednesday, she had filled her tub with water and had enough food to last for a few days. Sometimes she walks to the local fire station to get water and sandwiches.

“I’m just thinking, if I can manage to save this place,” she said, standing in the muddy living room. Before the storm, she rented the apartment to someone for three months starting in January. “But that’s not going to happen,” she said.

She missed her neighbors, most of whom evacuated before the storm, leaving their street, East Bay Avenue, eerily silent even at noon.

“It’s desolate,” Regan said, but she has her own apartment and her hawapus, Lola.

Her children live far away, in Chicago, Nashville and Washington, D.C. Regan said she knew shelters on the mainland allowed people to bring pets, but she didn’t feel safe going there.

“I used to put my life in danger,” she said, walking over to inspect her late grandmother’s flooded house on Beach Road, now nearly blocked by fallen trees and a stray boat . “I won’t do it again.”

On September 30, Project DYNAMO, a veteran volunteer group to save civilians, traveled to Sanibel Island to find and rescue Hurricane Ian survivors. (Video: Reshma Kirpalani, James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

Along Beach Road, a muddy walkway connects it to Bailey Road, where longtime residents Flor and Mario Cruz were surveying their blue-and-white rental cabin before evacuating. They pointed to the roof, which Ian ripped off as they hid in their neighbor’s million-dollar elevated house across the street.

The Cruzes are natives of Yucatan, Mexico, who have lived on the island for 20 years. Mario Cruz, 60, works as a chef at the Bubble Room restaurant on nearby Captive Island. He was wearing a black work shirt, one of the few belongings he could salvage.

“We threw away almost everything,” he said.

They plan to stay in a sanctuary on the mainland. As a Sanibel police officer took the couple in a pickup truck to the evacuation ferry, 57-year-old Frock Cruz joked: “Where am I going, Disneyland?”

“I love your spirit,” the officer said.

“What to do, cry?” Mario Cruz said with a wry smile.

“I know,” the officer said, leading them to the truck, “let’s get you off the island.”

City manager Souza said a barge is expected to arrive this weekend to bring construction, fire and police equipment to the island. Once the structural safety team arrives on Monday and completes inspections starting at the eastern end of the island, residents of those areas will be allowed to return for one-day visits via a 40-passenger barge or boat arranged by the city, he said.

The island’s main roads have been cleared by city workers, and about 80 percent of the roads in Sanibel’s densely populated eastern end are home to major business districts. But crews have only restored enough water to supply first responders and the city hall. More than half of the sewage pumping stations were damaged by salt water, and it was unclear when power would be restored, Souza said.

Search-and-rescue crews combed through the wreckage of mobile homes in Changchun parks and campsites on Saturday, but found no diehards. Ferries run all day, but some residents are eager to stay in Sanibel even as they prepare to board.

“It was horrible to leave,” said Susan Wener, a retired registered nurse who survived the storm after 25 years of living in an elevated house in Sanibel. “Look at my house, it’s intact.”

But going out, Sanibel, whom she loves, is a disaster area.

“There are two hot tubs in my driveway; I don’t know who they are,” Wener, 74, and her husband, a part-time internist at the local Veterans Administration hospital, waited with their Havanese, Charlie.

After the ferry arrived in Fort Myers, they would pick up a ride from a friend in St. Petersburg, but Wiener wasn’t sure if they would stay there.

“Naples is closer, but I don’t know: will we come back?” she asked.

Janice Gregg shared the same concerns as she sat nearby with her husband Jim.

“I want to stay here, but he wants me to go to his son’s house in Sarasota,” said Greg, 76, who retired to Northern California and Nevada after working for newspapers and local Fox News affiliates Sanibel. Her husband, now 81, works in real estate and bought a house in Sanibel in the 1970s. So they settled down with pets and a classic car, and ended up living in a three-story house. While their first-floor garage was flooded and their car was destroyed, Greg said the house wasn’t flooded and she couldn’t bear to leave.

She called her stepson, who was supposed to pick them up at the other end of the Fort Myers ferry.

“Are you sure you can do it?” she asked.

One of the dozen or so residents shouted: “The boat is here!”

“We’re going,” her husband said.

Greg tried to reason with him. The island is home. She didn’t want the hurricane to take it away.

“I really want to stay,” she pleaded. “Please, please let me stay. You can be back in a few weeks. I want to be a survivor.”

Her husband walked towards the boat. Greg followed, complaining that she might want to take the ferry back. But she asked her husband to take her aboard, not sure when she would see her island home again.