By Clementine Paarlberg
Sanibel Island, an island in Lee County, Florida, is known for its sandy beaches, warm weather, and large variety of shells. The bike paths that wind through the popular vacation spot attract families from all over the country. The island is filled with hotels, timeshares, and rentals, and feeds off of the vast amount of tourism it attracts. For years, one of those tourists was my grandmother, Judy Engelberg.
On September 28th, parts of the causeway connecting the island to the mainland of Florida collapsed during Hurricane Ian. Residents of the island who chose not to or were not able to evacuate are now trapped on the island unless they are able to leave by boat or helicopter. When visiting Sanibel in the aftermath of Ian an ABC news team including Rachel DeLima, Timmy Truong, and Victor Oquendo said “We jumped right onto the beach near, around the middle of the island. Everything we saw was either destroyed or sustained damage.”
The primary concern, post-hurricane, is repairing the causeway, which some island goers refer to as Sanibel’s umbilical cord. Without car access to the island, the economy will suffer greatly, as will the day-to-day life of island residents. Regarding the causeway, Judy says “in 2007, the causeway was rebuilt to modern standards, so it’s really questionable why this happened because a lot of the roadway underneath was washed away, in five different places. However, once you did get on the causeway, it was beautiful because you are surrounded by water.”
In addition to the destruction of the causeway, homes were ripped apart by devastating winds, and stores were flooded with heavy rainfall. At least 2 fatalities have been recorded, but much information is still unknown.
What’s known is that life for residents of Sanibel Island has changed, and will not return to normal for at least a couple of months. Some power lines suffered such severe damage that they could take months to repair. Stores and restaurants were completely destroyed, and without the causeway to bring over supplies, it could take a long time to rebuild. Some residents worry that Hurricane Ian will change not only the spirit of the island but the physical look of it, as buildings that have been there for decades will eventually be rebuilt. Judy says “It is an island where 25% has to be undeveloped, so that won’t change, so it will still be a place with lots of green space, but I don’t think a lot of the older buildings will be rebuilt. And that might change the character. Anyone who lived on the island and worked on the island might not be able to afford living there anymore.”
Judy says she started coming to Sanibel Island in the 1980s because of the welcoming community it fosters. The people have always been friendly, and there are a variety of social activities on the island to be involved in such as the Sanibel Community House, a non-profit dedicated to hosting community events. She says the island is constantly filled with joy, not just because of the sunny beach weather, but because of the people that it attracts.
Sanibel has a long road ahead. The people that adore it and live there are faced with the devastating truth that life as they know it does not exist anymore. Hurricane Ian severely battered the 12-mile-long island and it will take the help and support of many to rebuild the cherished paradise. Consider donating to organizations such as American Red Cross or F.I.S.H of Sanibel Captiva to support the island through this challenging time.