Their paradise lost to Ian, Sanibel residents hope its spirit survives

SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla. — Crossing the causeway bridge from the mainland, visitors’ first glimpse of this cherished Gulf Coast getaway was often Point Ybel Light, an iron tower built in 1884 at the tip of the 33 square-mile spit of land, surrounded by a thick green mix of palms and seagrapes. Spot the lighthouse, and you had reached paradise.

The barrier island was home to 6,500 locals, but that swelled during the winter to 20,000 retirees, tourists and other seasonal residents, many of them Midwesterners seeking relief from frigid climates. Locals list famous visitors, from Denzel Washington to Johnny Depp, Eric Clapton to former vice president Mike Pence.

Seashell collectors came to scour Sanibel’s beaches, renowned for their diverse bounty. Birdwatchers frequented its nature preserves; golfers its resorts. They built multimillion-dollar mansions or bought mobile homes, then rubbed shoulders at businesses on Periwinkle Way, at The Sandbar, Tipsy Turtle and Jerry’s Foods.

The lighthouse survived Hurricane Ian, but the storm devastated much of the rest of Sanibel. It tore homes and apartment complexes apart, killing some residents. It flooded Periwinkle businesses, mobile home parks, condos and resorts, knocking out power, water and a stretch of the causeway, filling streets with debris and sticky gray mud. No one knows how long it will take to rebuild — much hinges on the three-mile bridge officials haven’t said will be repaired any time soon — or how lasting the damage will be to the barrier island’s spirit.

Many living on the island evacuated before the storm and have not been allowed back. On Saturday, the fire department warned holdouts that Sunday was the last day they’d be driven from their homes to the makeshift ferry service at the Sanibel Boat Ramp. It was clear that some were staying: They could be seen bicycling to spots with cellphone reception, to the grocery store or to the beach to take makeshift baths.

At a briefing late Saturday in a Fort Myers hotel, Sanibel’s temporary city hall, City Manager Dana Souza stressed the island wasn’t yet safe for Sanibelians.

“Sanibel remains under a 24-hour curfew, and we ask people not to go to the island,” Souza said, urging those on the island to evacuate and noting that about a hundred left Saturday. “We don’t want people staying on the island. We know that you’re anxious to do that, but it’s still a dangerous situation out there.”

He said there have been four fatalities so far, but that searches and rescues were still underway and National Guard troops were expected to arrive Sunday. On Saturday, police escorted several people from the island after they were caught stealing property, he said.

Souza and Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith faced a barrage of questions from homeowners, business owners, renters and seasonal residents about how they could rebuild remotely, many of which depended on restoring the causeway bridge, which one man called the island’s “umbilical cord.”

“What do you tentatively foresee as time for life on the island again, with the causeway sustaining life on the island?” a woman asked.

Exhausted Sanibel Island residents arrived in Fort Myers, Fla., on Sept 30 and attempted to contact family members while mourning the loss of loved ones. (Video: Reshma Kirpalani/The Washington Post)

Kyle Sweet, 51, lives on the east end but works to the west, as superintendent at The Sanctuary Golf Club. Driving by the boat ramp Saturday, he said the west end’s power lines and poles sustained far more damage, and would likely take months to repair.

“This area will be sooner to recover, and the Periwinkle downtown area,” he said.

Besides the damaged causeway, volunteers ran ferryboats and small groups of residents formed at the boat ramp, the island’s new hot spot. It was one of the few areas on Sanibel with decent cellphone service.

“They’re all great friends. I don’t know who’s going to stay or go,” said Captain Paul Primeaux as he sat with one group.

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

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

“Shalimar Hotel was scraped clean,” Primeaux said, his face grim. “Beachview Cottages: Wiped.”

“Done. I’m ground level,” he said, adding, “The Mucky Duck survived.”

Bob Butterfield grinned. Butterfield, 38, was a server and bartender at the restaurant. Others would rebuild too, he was sure. But that didn’t mean they would truly restore Sanibel.

“It’s going to be weird to see everything new. It’s going to ruin that old island look,” Butterfield said.

Neighbor Robin Roberts, 39, was working as a bartender at The Island Cow until it caught fire in August. Before the owner could rebuild, the hurricane struck.

“It’s just destroyed now,” she said.

Roberts had been working more recently at Chips Place Restaurant, she said, but when she visited after the storm, “It looked pretty bad, too.”

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

On Saturday, she was escorting her grandson to the mainland on the ferry while his parents spent one more day cleaning their home. Dylan Stevens, 13, said he was a 7th grader at Sanibel Elementary, but, “I guess that’s not going to be operational.”

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

Much will depend on how fast officials rebuild the bridge, a lifeline to mainland Florida for Sanibel’s residents and economy.

“The big wild card for everyone is the causeway. Repairing is going to be slow,” said Primeaux, the charter captain. And that will delay the supplies necessary to rebuild everything else, he said, “and the tourists we all rely on.”

Yet even in the wake of the disaster, the island exerted its familiar pull: With so much work to do, many were torn about leaving.

Lorraine Regan, 57, a gym teacher and mother of four from coastal New Jersey, retired to Sanibel this summer to live in her late grandmother’s ranch house. She bought a condo at Seawind Apartments to rent out, and that’s where she ended up surviving the storm, safe on the second floor while her first floor flooded. The hurricane inundated her grandmother’s house with storm water, churning the contents, leaving a muddy flood line inches from the ceiling and rendering it uninhabitable for now.

When a search and rescue team stopped by to check on her the day after the storm, Regan told them she was staying at her condo, which seemed structurally sound. Later, a passing police officer urged her to leave. But she’d already started cleaning muddy, flooded floors on the first story and was sleeping upstairs. She’d filled the bathtub with water before the storm hit Wednesday, and had enough food to last for days. Sometimes she walked to the local fire station to get water and sandwiches.

“All I thought is if I can try to salvage this place,” she said as she stood in the muddy living room. Before the storm, she had rented the condo to someone for three months starting in January. “But that’s not going to happen,” she said.

She missed her neighbors, most of whom had evacuated before the storm, leaving their street, East Gulf Drive, eerily silent even at midday.

“It’s pretty desolate,” Regan said, but she has her condo and her Havapoo dog, Lola.

Her children live far away, in Chicago, Nashville and Washington, DC Regan said she knows shelters on the mainland allow people to bring pets, but she doesn’t feel safe going to one.

“I’ve already put my life in jeopardy once,” she said as she walked over to check on her late grandmother’s flooded house on Beach Road, now nearly blocked by fallen trees and an errant boat.I’m not doing it again.”

Ten Sept. 30, Project DYNAMO, a veteran volunteer group that rescues civilians, traveled to Sanibel island to search for and rescue survivors of Hurricane Ian. (Video: Reshma Kirpalani, James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

Down Beach Road, where a muddy footpath connects it to Bailey Road, longtime residents Flor and Mario Cruz were surveying their blue and white rental cottage before evacuating. They pointed to the roof, which had been ripped off by Ian as they sheltered in a neighbor’s million-dollar elevated home across the street.

Natives of Yucatán, Mexico, the Cruzes had lived on the island for 20 years. Mario Cruz, 60, worked as a cook at the Bubble Room restaurant on nearby Captiva Island. He was wearing his black work shirt, one of the few belongings he was able to salvage.

“We threw away almost everything,” he said.

They planned to stay at a shelter on the mainland. When a Sanibel police officer arrived with a search and rescue crew in a pickup truck to take the couple to the evacuation ferry, Flor Cruz, 57, joked: “Where am I going, Disneyland?”

“I love your spirit,” the officer said.

“What do I do, cry?” Mario Cruz said, smiling ruefully.

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

A barge was expected to arrive this weekend to carry construction, fire and police equipment to the island, city manager Souza said. Once a structural safety team arrives Monday and completes inspections starting at the island’s east end, residents in those areas will be allowed to return for day-long visits via the barge or boats the city had arranged with space for 40 passengers, he said.

The island’s main roads have been cleared by city crews, along with about 80 percent of roads on Sanibel’s more heavily populated east end, home to the main business district. But crews have only restored enough water to supply first responders and city hall. More than half of the Wastewater pump stations were damaged by salt water, and it wasn’t clear how soon power would return, Souza said.

Search and rescue crews combed through the wreckage of mobile homes at Periwinkle Park and Campground Saturday, but didn’t find any holdouts. Ferries ran all day, but some residents longed to remain in Sanibel even as they prepared to board the boat.

“It was horrible to leave,” said Susan Wener, a retired registered nurse who’s lived on Sanibel for 25 years in an elevated house that survived the storm. “You look inside my house and it’s perfectly intact.”

But step outside, and the Sanibel she loved was a disaster zone.

“I have two hot tubs in my driveway; I do n’t know whose they are, ”said Wener, 74, as she waited with her husband, a part-time internist at the local Veteran’s Administration hospital, and their Havanese, Charlie.

Once the ferry arrived in Fort Myers, they would get a ride from a friend from St. Petersburg, but Wener wasn’t sure if they would stay there.

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

Janis Gregg shared the same worry as she sat nearby with her husband Jim.

“I want to stay here, but he wants me to go to his son’s in Sarasota,” said Gregg, 76, who retired to Sanibel after a career working for newspapers and a local Fox News affiliate in Northern California and Nevada. Her husband, 81, was in the real estate business and bought a house on Sanibel in the 1970s. So that was where they had settled with their pets and vintage cars, ultimately in a three-story elevated home. While their first floor garage flooded, ruining the cars, Gregg said the house mercifully didn’t flood and she couldn’t bear to leave it.

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

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

Someone in the crowd of about a dozen residents shouted, “There’s the boat!”

“We’re going,” each husband said.

Gregg tried to reason with him. The island was home. She didn’t want to let the hurricane claim it.

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

Her husband walked toward the boat. Gregg followed, grumbling that she might try to take the ferry back. But she let her husband lead her aboard, unsure when she’d see her island home again.

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