SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla. — Darkness has not yet yielded to the rising sun, but there’s already a flurry of activity on the tip of Sanibel Island. More than a hundred island locals and public officials have gathered around the community’s beacon of light to mark five months after Hurricane Ian’s brutal arrival in this peaceful tropical paradise. In late September 2022, the Category 4 storm ravaged the coast of Southwest Florida, destroying homes, leveling businesses and damaging ecosystems.
For many who remember the hurricane’s impact and the trauma it caused, it’s an occasion worth getting out of bed for: the relighting of the Sanibel Lighthouse. The historic monument surrendered one of its four legs to the catastrophic storm but remained standing, unlike the surrounding cottages, which were flattened amid Ian’s devastating march across the island.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s a symbolic milestone and a meaningful one as the lighthouse again begins to blink, inspiring cheers and tears, shining light into a community that has experienced dark times.
“She’s broken, but she’s still there. We’re a little broken, but we’re still here. And that’s the resiliency of what this island is,” said Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith. “We see this lighthouse as a beacon of hope, a beacon of life and a beacon of community. I couldn’t be more proud for all of us to be here.”
Though it’s been half a year since Florida’s Gulf Coast felt the powerful storm surge and 155 mph winds — and there are glimmers of hope — there are still many signs of devastation.
Boats and dumpsters that rose with floodwaters remain forcefully wedged into mangroves. New utility poles stand where previous ones were snapped like toothpicks. Overnight, mobile home parks were transformed into piles of rubble that still remain. Beachfront hotels and condos have turned into empty lots or husks of the oceanfront oases they used to be.
Ian sent climate refugees fleeing, some of whom may never return to the area. Especially on Fort Myers Beach, where land values have risen since the storm, some saw no other option but to cut their losses and find a new home elsewhere.
But for many others, the choice is clear.
Stay and rebuild at whatever cost.
‘This is home’
For the tens of thousands of Floridians who make their living serving food, shrimping, running charter boats or catering to tourists in hotels and shops, it’s a long road to recovery.
Homeowners who choose to rebuild must contend with FEMA’s “50% rule,” which prohibits improvements to a structure exceeding 50% of its market value unless the entire building is brought up to code.
Before rebuilding, property and business owners face hurdles with insurance claims, permits and waitlists for everything from cabinets to metal roofs and garage doors.
But for local leaders such as Jacki Liszak, the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce president, there was never a thought in her mind about leaving.
“This is my home,” she said without hesitation. “You have to fight for what you love.”
It’s a sign of tremendous resolve from a woman who lost her hotel, the Sea Gypsy Inn, gift shop, chamber of commerce building and dozens of vacation rental properties in the 15-foot storm surge Fort Myers Beach experienced.
Five months after the hurricane, Liszak and her husband are staying in a friend’s apartment, living on temporary power where drying her hair could blow out the whole house.
Despite that, she has spent countless hours helping businesses get back on track and even appeared at the president’s State of the Union address as a guest of the first lady.
“The good thing is that everybody is helping everybody,” Liszak said. “We’re all finding creative ways to help each other.”
If Hurricane Ian revealed anything, it was the fragility of human infrastructure, especially among tired hotels and cottages built decades ago. But more than that, it highlighted the strength of human resilience.
‘Stronger the next time’
The day after Ian tore through Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island, helicopter pilot Tommy Dykes remembers being shocked by what he saw.
“It looked like a war zone,” he recalled. “There was a foot or two of water on this whole peninsula and Sanibel. I saw the causeway was blown out.”
Dykes, who also owns an air conditioning business, was just as surprised by how quickly people sprung into action.
“If you ever step on an ant pile, they all immediately come out. Then you come by later and the mound is rebuilt,” Dykes said. “It’s the same way here, everybody just sprung into action. Like, ‘Wow, that was quick.’”
For the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau, marketing has been a delicate balance of sharing good news while letting visitors know what to expect.
“It is my job to say, ‘The sky is blue, the water is warm and the sand is soft.’ But if we’re not truthful with people when they come and their experience is bad, that’s a poor reflection on our dedication to them,” said Tamara Pigott, the bureau’s executive director. “We try to be very truthful with people and honest about what’s going on.”
Despite headwinds and hurdles, Lee County has tallied close to 10,000 guest rooms that are now open for visitors, bringing the number of available accommodations up to nearly 70% of pre-Ian levels.
While older hotels and inns on Fort Myers Beach stood little chance against Ian’s flooding and winds, Margaritaville Resort Fort Myers Beach, under construction at the time of the storm, showed the strength of modern structures built to code. Although the hurricane pushed back the resort’s opening date, the property expects to welcome its first guests by the end of this year.
Most inland properties have managed to reopen along with a handful of coastal accommodations, including The Westin Cape Coral, Marriott Sanibel Harbour and Hyatt Regency Coconut Point. Fort Myers Beach is hosting guests at Pink Shell, DiamondHead and Lighthouse Resort Inn. ‘Tween Waters on Captiva Island is open, but it seems many properties on Sanibel Island have a long way to go.
On Fort Myers Beach, Snug Harbor, Wahoo Willie’s, Dixie Fish Company and Lighthouse Tiki Bar are among eateries open and bustling with business. Sanibel restaurants such as MudBugs Cajun Kitchen, Tutti Pazzi Italian and Doc Ford’s are happily welcoming back customers.
On other parts of the islands, the next months and years could see dozens of parcels changing hands and plenty of new construction, potentially changing the character of the coastline.
“There’s only so much white sandy beach in the world, and this is a special spot. We will rebuild,” Pigott said. “There will be another hurricane, and we want to be stronger the next time.”
Dykes said the coastline is currently nearing the end of its “first phase” of full recovery, with the cleanup and demolition work mostly complete. Now begins the real process of building back.
“With enough time, it’ll be right back to business as usual here in another six, eight or 12 months,” he said. “There’s a lot of people here working, there’s a lot of people coming to vacation. The sun is shining, so they’re here.”
Nature’s respite and recovery
A trip along Sanibel Island’s oceanfront drive reveals stark signs of hurricane-induced destruction: gutted hotels, empty lots where tourism once thrived and piles of debris that were homes.
While some shops have managed to reopen, popular eateries such as Sanibel’s The Island Cow, which was previously damaged in a kitchen fire, and Captiva’s Bubble Room, remain closed.
Seeing such gut-wrenching devastation begs the question: Why stay and rebuild?
Right across from leveled lots and shacks in shambles, there are soothing sounds of waves lapping onto the shore while tranquil beachgoers look for shells on Blind Pass Beach.
Nobody wants to be anywhere but here in this moment. It only makes sense why some aren’t ready to give up their slice of paradise, especially on Sanibel Island, where a conservation ethic defines the island’s way of life.
“To have a barrier island that people live on that is nearly 70% reserved for wildlife is unheard of,” Pigott said. “The environment is something that everyone there is passionate about.”
That is especially clear when visiting the beloved J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a more than 6,400-acre hot spot for birding and ecotourism. The refuge’s popular wildlife drive has been closed since the storm but should reopen for guests in April.
“It is paradise, untouched, and people have kept it untouched,” said Toni Westland, a supervisory ranger at the refuge. She said the mangrove trees provided a natural buffer to protect the island.
“When I saw my first gopher tortoise after the storm, I never thought there would even be one. I think we had about 12 feet of water for 10 hours,” she said. “That is resiliency.”
Cabbage Key, about five miles west of Pine Island, also fared remarkably well in the storm, thanks in large part to its natural mangrove guardians and protective vegetation. Only 20 of the 111 acres on the island are developed.
The island’s restaurant, a cherished way station for fishermen and boaters, reopened 17 days after Hurricane Ian on generator power. Constructed on a Calusa Indian shell mound, the main building sits about 38 feet above sea level and out of reach from floodwaters.
“Our island was buffed by the natural protection from the trees and plant life,” said Scott Lepson, Cabbage Key’s restaurant manager and assistant resort manager. “Cabbage Key is living proof of why you don’t touch mangroves.”
The waterfront oasis also saw an outpouring of support from its fans, who fundraised more than $60,000 to help Cabbage Key’s staff and eagerly came back to celebrate its reopening.
“There’s a lot of love for this island,” Lepson said. “We’re part of the community, and the community is part of us.”
Natural and human resilience have worked hand-in-hand to aid recovery efforts, which have been expedited by teamwork, strong leadership and the stubborn refusal to be knocked down.
“Our community spirit is stronger than ever. When you face a catastrophe of this magnitude, what happens is people come together,” said Smith, the Sanibel mayor. “I would not live anywhere else in the world.”