After Hurricane Ian hit Sanibel and Captiva islands with category-four fierceness, parts of the area have been slowly recovering.Photo credit: Jerome LABOUYRIE / Shutterstock.com
Islanders rejoiced on October 19 — the Sanibel Causeway was opened!
After Hurricane Ian hit Sanibel and Captiva islands with category-four fierceness on September 28, some predicted it would be 6 months before the bridge to the islands from mainland Fort Myers, Florida, would be mended. The powers-that-be, however, understood the islands’ importance to the state and the completion date was moved to October 21. Then it opened days earlier for electric crews and finally residents, property and business owners, and service contractors. The causeway remains closed to all others. The most optimistic estimates see it opening to the general public within 6 months.
That will be another day for rejoicing, as the islands hold a special place in the hearts of so many travelers. Known for their seashell-rich beaches and vast acreage of protected wildlife habitats, Sanibel and Captiva islands are among Florida’s most popular destinations.
Until the islands welcome visitors once again, rebuilding is aggressive on islands that bear little resemblance to the lush, lovely destination of a month ago. On the 1-month anniversary, I personally reflect on what’s been lost – including my home of 30-plus years, my husband’s business, our vehicles, and our belongings – and struggle, as do hundreds, to turn despair into hope.
One recent bright moment cheered islanders, most of whom are staying off-island and commuting to clean up and restore. Jerry’s Foods, one of two major grocery stores on Sanibel and the anchor of a shopping complex, officially opened on October 25 with limited inventory. Its restaurant was to open on October 28 to first responders only, then to the public the following day. Two of its tenants — Sanibel Surf Shop and Sanibel Spirits — also opened that week. Owners of the other island market, Bailey’s General Store which hasn’t reponed yet, helped Jerry’s reopen.
As power is gradually restored, other businesses struggle to get back on their feet. Three restaurants are providing space for off-island organizations to bring free food to their parking lots.
The islands’ main attraction — its once-gorgeous, white-sand beaches — suffered erosion from the strong 12-foot surge it experienced. Lighthouse Park Beach at Sanibel’s east end lost the historic buildings surrounding its symbolic light tower. The tower itself lost a leg but still stands. On October 26, islanders learned the missing leg was recovered in three pieces, and the city will hire a specialist to repair the island’s beacon of hope.
Second in line, the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island has reopened trails at its Bailey Tract component and will begin next week to offer Mindfulness Walks to islanders and island workers there.
“We hope our free mental health breaks will be an asset to the community, to help people go through what they’re going through,” said Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland. “Take 30 minutes for yourself to ground yourself, decompress.”
The refuge’s main campus — its visitor and education center, wildlife drive, and trails — remain closed as staff clears downed vegetation. It looks like it could be a long while before the visitor center and the refuge’s Tarpon Bay Recreation Area reopen.
Other attractions — Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, Sanibel Historical Museum & Village, Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) — suffered extensive damage and have no estimated timeframe for reopening.
When the Sanibel Causeway fully opens to the general public, the islands will likely become mostly a day-trip destination for at least a year. Iconic beach resorts such as the historic Island Inn on Sanibel were largely destroyed. Sundial Beach Resort stands as do a number of small off-beach resorts, but will require extensive work.
South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island shuttered and laid off 238 employees. ‘Tween Waters Beach Resort, however, is currently functioning as room and board for the ARS Global Emergency Management Island Base Camp recovery crew. It just announced that it will begin taking reservations for residents, business owners, and restoration crews on February 1, 2023.
Hope For The Future
“Hope tempers the absolute air of sadness for our beloved islands,” said John Lai, CEO, and president of the Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce.
Although the chamber welcome center is closed indefinitely, Lai and his team work tirelessly with the city of Sanibel to bring the islands back.
“Jerry’s reopening was not only a symbol of hope for all islanders, but a potent demonstration of the island spirit — where people all work together for the better good, and competitors join forces.”
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