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Looking ahead, a new Sanibel-Captiva group shares dramatic lessons from Hurricane Ian

Residents of Sanibel and Captiva packed The Big Arts Sanibel theater to hear from the SanCap Citizens for a Resilient Future.

A consortium of businesses and nonprofit wants to spark conversations on how to rebuild the barrier islands so structures and people can become more resilient for future storms.

It’s been over five months since Hurricane Ian, and recovery on Sanibel island is slow. While some businesses are open, most are shuttered and shelled out, as are most homes.

On a recent evening, residents of Sanibel and Captiva packed The Big Arts Sanibel theater, coming to hear from a new local consortium of businesses and nonprofits called the SanCap Citizens for a Resilient Future. Members of the consortium include citizen volunteers, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, Sanibel-Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce, Committee of the Islands (COTI), "Ding" Darling Wildlife Society - Friends of the Refuge, City of Sanibel, Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife(CROW), Sanibel-Captiva Renewable Energy Working Group, and Lee County Climate Reality Project.

The group is hoping to add more nonprofits and businesses, along with concerned citizens, to engage on how best to rebuild after the storm and to be better prepared for future storms.

A second meeting planned for April will host experts in key areas of community resilience to examine what was done right in preparation of and response to the hurricane and what lessons can be learned for the future. Topics they hope to cover will include infrastructure, natural systems, essential services and emergency response.

This first meeting, however, had a more personal focus.

"The purpose of tonight's event is to bring residents and business owners, our community back to the moments before, during and following Sept. 28, 2022. And through their stories get a gut level appreciation of the actual emotional and physical toll Hurricane Ian had on us, our families, our friends in our community," said Sanibel City Council member John Henshaw.

"We want to recap those horrific events, the unprecedented destruction and the life-altering disruption that occurred that day, and instill in our citizens and businesses a sense of resolve, a sense of urgency, and a sense of commitment that, like that of 50 years ago, when our founders committed to protecting Sanibel from overdevelopment, we, our citizens and businesses now commit to a plan for our future and protect Sanibel and Captiva from the devastation and destruction of more frequent and intense storms."

Henshaw introduced four Sanibel residents who recounted their experiences in surviving Hurricane Ian, often choking back tears, finding some levity, and marveling at the destruction of storm surge.

Tracy Sharp is owner of the Over Easy Cafe and Island Paws pet store. She, her wife and her 89-year old mother had not evacuated for Hurricanes Charlie and Irma. Once Ian made the obvious right turn toward Sanibel, they were too late in deciding to evacuate. Plus, finding a hotel that would accommodate two great Danes and a French bulldog would have been an additional challenge.

Though their home was fortified for wind damage, they were concerned about flooding, and friends had offered them their home with upper floors. During a lull in the storm, the trio tried to get to the home, only 150 feet away, but the floodwaters were already flowing.

"I pictured storm surges, kind of a gradual rising of water. Storm surge is no joke. It was like a raging river," said Sharp. "I said, 'Mom, I can't get you over.' She's all of 100 pounds."

She went back to the house to get her partner's help.

 Beach condos on Sanibel shortly after Hurricane Ian passed through.
Tom James
Beach condos on Sanibel shortly after Hurricane Ian passed through.

"We had two backpacks, French bulldog, my mom, she had my arm. We started across. It was so loud. You couldn't even hear each other talk. The water in two minutes since I was out last was above our kneecaps. We could hear the house crackling across the street," Sharp recounted. "We saw trees, two by fours, everything starting to come through. And next thing, I look over (and) my mom is not on my arm. I look back. I can't see her. She's under the water. I start screaming at the top of my lungs because Liza was a little bit ahead of me. I said, 'Get back, we've lost Mom.' She got caught up in a pygmy date palm, shirt over her head. We drag her out. We go back in. We're all drenched and we got to come up with a Plan C.

Plan C was a 3-by-3 air handler room near the roof. All but the 200-pound dog was able to squeeze into that small space.

"Fraser stands at the bottom of ladder for about five hours and stares up at us," she recalled.

And then, the storm intensified.

"The wind picked up. Things started hitting the roof. We found out later that the house across the street came off the foundation and was hitting our house… the whole house started shaking. I told my mom to hold on to the rafters. And I said at that point, ‘Mom, I think we're gonna die.’ And she looked at me and she said, ‘Sweetie, I know we're gonna die. God has a plan. … Just keep your faith going.’

Their faith, talking about old times and a bottle of wine helped them make it through the night. A couple of days later, Sharp and her entire family, dogs included, were evacuated by a Black Hawk helicopter.

"I told my mom the Black Hawk was her 90th birthday present, which was the next week," Sharp said.

Former Mayor Jerry Muench shares ownership of Periwinkle Park with his two brothers. It's a mobile home and camping park on Sanibel.

Muench watched the storm from North Carolina, but his brother Dick had refused to leave because the park is known for its collection of exotic and native birds. His brother had evacuated during Hurricane Charlie and had trouble getting back on the island. He didn't want that to happen again.

"I looked at him and said, ‘We'd rather have you around than the birds.’ He said, 'No, I'm staying,' " recalled Muench.

Muench then described his brother's ordeal. "Single-family home on the ground. He had to stand on his couch for two hours with water up to his neck. I mean, there's where you think you're done. You're gonna die.

After the storm, Muench's brother and sister-in-law were evacuated by helicopter. When Muench made it down to the island, he found their trailer park destroyed.

"You just couldn't believe what I was looking at. Armageddon. Total devastation. Everything that wasn't nailed down was gone. Every home in the park destroyed."

Muench said that three or four birds ended up surviving.

 Sanibel Causeway, breached by the storm surge from Hurricane Ian.
Tom James
Sanibel Causeway, breached by the storm surge from Hurricane Ian.

Panelist Sharon Michie took her lessons as a child living in Florida and evacuated in the nick of time.

Michie owns a vacation rental company called Cottages to Castles. Prior to the storm, she had to usher reluctant guests out of the rental homes to put up storm windows, secure boats and pull in outdoor furniture. Because she has been a lifelong Floridian, she was prepared to go once she was done with her clients' homes. Or, so she thought.

"I had packed my bag two days prior, I have a hurricane kit. I do everything right. I have Starlink satellite internet, I invested in that two years ago. I have it for my office in my home, and I have it at our rental homes," said Michie. "I had my laptop from the office with the plan of just going back to the office into my house, getting my go bag, getting the server, throwing everything in the car. When I got to the four-way stop to head back to my house, which is at the west end of the island by Fire Station No. 2, the Captiva fire truck was leaving. So that means it's too late. I could make a run for it and try to get to my house and not make it back across the causeway because by then there would be a moving body of water. And water is not our friend. I left with just the clothes on my back, my laptop for my work and my Starlink in the back of my car."

According to Miami-Dade Urban Search and Rescue records, 5,126 structures on Sanibel were considered damaged. Another 189 were labeled not affected. Michie's home was among the latter.

Dick Bordeau’s home was not one of the lucky ones.

"Bought our first house in 2010. That was a piling house. 2020 we bought a ground-level house, which against all better judgment didn't really work out so well," he joked. 'When all is said and done, we didn't lose any possessions, they just kind of washed themselves around the house. Something like this really causes you to wonder what your future is. There were, you know a number of times when we knew we were gonna put it back together, but we didn't know what we were going to do long term. You know, I think our resolve is greater and greater that will we stay. I mean, we're staying."

Like Bordeau, the other residents on the stage have resolved to stay and rebuild. This is good news for the SanCap Citizens for a Resilient Future, as John Henshaw reiterated at the end of the event.

"The goal tonight was to recap the last six months and instill in our community a sense of urgency, commitment and resolve to establish a more resilient future for Sanibel-Captiva. I hope to enroll our residents and businesses to learn, act and secure our investments, our natural habitats, and our community's future. We can and must learn to adapt."

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Pam James