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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘There’s no spring break here’: Florida’s Gulf Coast fights to rebound after Hurricane Ian

Shops and restaurants demolished by Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., Feb. 9, 2023.

By Shannon Sims

On Sept. 28, Hurricane Ian made landfall on Cayo Costa, a barrier island northwest of Cape Coral and Fort Myers, Florida, as a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of more than 150 mph. Killing 149 people in Florida, it was the state’s deadliest hurricane since 1935. More than four months later, the storm’s extraordinary power remains evident: In Fort Myers Beach, multistory oceanfront apartment buildings are still just piles of twisted steel and concrete rubble, and massive shrimping boats sit tilted and smashed together like toys in the corner of a tub.

The storm’s wrath extended up and down the west coast of Florida. But Sanibel Island, one of the area’s most popular vacation destinations, was hit especially hard. The fish-hook-shaped barrier island, some 12 miles long and 3 miles across at its widest, was devastated. Even the causeway that connects it to the mainland was partly destroyed.

On a recent afternoon, sitting at a table outside the Sanibel Grill, which roof and water damage kept closed for months, the mayor of Sanibel, Holly Smith, 61, was blunt. “There’s no spring break here,” she said. “As far as the recovery of tourism, we have a long way to go.”

Smith said that during the storm, the island had “a complete washover” — the 12-foot storm surge covered everything.

Beth Sharer, 66, a homeowner on the island, said when she went back to her ravaged condo, she couldn’t find the high-water mark that flooding usually leaves. “And then I realized there wasn’t one: The water was higher than the entire apartment,” she said.

When Smith visited the island with Gov. Ron DeSantis in the days after the storm, the area looked like a war zone, she said. “It was like ‘Mad Max,’ with dirt across the roads.”

Fears of becoming a ‘new Miami’

Before the hurricane, Sanibel and Captiva, a smaller island connected to the north of Sanibel by a short bridge, offered an estimated 2,800 lodging units, including hotel rooms and short-term rentals, according to the Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce. Today there are just 155 available, the chamber said. “We’ve changed our communication strategy from promoting the island to helping manage guest expectations for the next 12 months,” said John Lai, CEO of the chamber, which is now encouraging visitors to sign up for “voluntourism” options like helping to clear trails at the nature reserve or clean debris from the beaches.

By comparison, Fort Myers Beach had 2,384 hotel rooms before the storm, according to the Lee County government. In the wake of the storm, none of those rooms were open. As of this month, 360 of those rooms were available — just 15% of prehurricane inventory.

Before the hurricane, JPS Vacation Rentals, a local agency, had 32 properties available in Fort Myers Beach, said Heidi Jungwirth, the owner. Seven of those remain standing, but all were damaged, and none are currently rentable, she said. She has turned her office into a distribution center for donations. Distinctive Beach Rentals, which used to be the largest vacation management company in Fort Myers Beach, with 400 properties, saw 380 of those units “wiped out,” said Tom Holevas, the area manager, adding that the company has now pivoted to offering more inland rentals.

At the Lighthouse Resort’s Tiki Bar & Grill, where today the bathroom doors are shower curtains and the kitchen consists of a grill behind the outdoor bar, Betsy Anderson, 50, expressed concern about the area’s future. She owns an apartment in Cape Coral, just inland from the beach, that she rents via Airbnb. She said she had several guests cancel after the storm because the beaches were closed, and she is currently renting to a couple fixing up their own flooded house on Sanibel.

She worries that the storm will accelerate change. “We don’t think it can come back,” she said, referring to the area’s laid-back character and “old Florida” style. “Now people are saying big investors are going to come in with big money and turn this into the new Miami.”

Reviving an economic lifeline

On Sanibel, the push to rebuild began early, in part because the island draws so many visitors from across the country to its famous shelling beaches. A temporary causeway opened less than two weeks after the storm, allowing a convoy of electrical companies’ cherry picker trucks to reach the island. On Oct. 19, the bridges — one lane in each direction, with reduced speed limits — were opened to residents. For the rest of 2022, piece by piece, the area started to come back online.

“This place is on a lot of people’s bucket lists,” said Smith, alluding to visitors who “just want a shell from Sanibel.” But it will be at least a year before the island can accommodate tourists in any numbers, she said.

It doesn’t help that the island’s beaches are currently suffering from Florida’s persistent red tide, which is caused by a higher-than-normal level of microscopic algae that produce toxins in the water, turning it a rusty brown color and killing fish. The tide can significantly affect visitors’ experiences, aggravating respiratory problems, leaving beaches littered with rotting sea life and discouraging time spent near the water.

Still, residents and businesses are trudging toward getting tourists — their economic lifeline — back to the shore.

In just the past month, the first hotel rooms reopened for visitors at Sanibel’s Island Inn and the ’Tween Waters Resort & Spa on Captiva Island.

Some restaurants that were only lightly damaged have reopened quickly. Others are now operating out of food trucks. Some shops are back open, too, and many outdoor activities are once again available: renting kayaks and stand-up paddleboards or chartering fishing boats.

‘It breaks your heart’

For now, a visit to the area is more a pledge of support than a vacation.

On a sunny day in early February, Lisa Taussig of Overland Park, Kansas, and Christy, her adult daughter, were among the few tourists on the beach in front of the Island Inn, where they were staying. They come to the island about three times a year, Taussig said, and this year is no different. “After the storm passed, we just said, ‘You know what? We’re going to come down here and support Sanibel,’” she said.

“You feel welcome here,” she added, before turning and gesturing to the series of plywood-covered, battered condo buildings behind her. “Now it feels isolated, and there aren’t the lush trees that are usually here.

“It breaks your heart,” she said.

In Fort Myers Beach, residents still pick up their mail at a trailer. Glass, nails and unidentifiable twisted debris remain scattered along the ground. Around town, many flags, bumper stickers and T-shirts are emblazoned with “FMB STRONG.”

On a recent Saturday, a tiny spot called the Beach Bar was packed with a crowd of locals who looked storm-weary but exuded an ornery refusal to retreat. Even before the storm, the bar’s physical structure — right off Estero Boulevard, the beach strip that’s historically packed with visitors cruising in top-down vehicles — didn’t amount to much: It was a two-story, open-air wooden building facing the water. Now only the concrete slab remains.

But that hasn’t stopped the regulars. The crowd showed up with beach chairs and coolers, which they set up on the concrete. “They’re operating right now with a trailer, two outhouses and a band,” said Randy Deutsch, 72, from Chicago, who said he’d been coming to the bar since 1972.

“Our concept didn’t change,” said Matt Faller, the manager. “Cold beer, live music, toes in the sand.”

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