Sanibel Island: A ‘war zone’ where some strangers choose to leave and others to stay

Sanibel Island, Florida

An elderly couple riding out Hurricane Ian at their home on Sanibel Island, Florida, could not agree to evacuate after parts of the causeway to the mainland were destroyed.

“We’re leaving. We’re leaving,” the unidentified man told his partner as she looked down from the home’s top porch.

“But where?” she asked.

Fort Myers, she was told by the man and members of a rescue mission who arrived by boat.

“The bridge is down.”

“I’m not ready to go,” she said Thursday and stayed back.

Ian has left at least two people dead on the barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, and volunteers from Louisiana’s Cajun Navy and other rescue groups have been out on boats checking on the roughly 200 households that did not evacuate.

“When Americans are in trouble in bad places — usually we do war zones and conflict zones, but Hurricane Ian qualifies,” said Bryan Stern, a former military intelligence officer more used to operating in places like Ukraine and Afghanistan.

Stern is co-founder of Project Dynamo, a group of veterans that locates vulnerable Americans in conflict zones and transports them to safety. Its name comes from the operation that evacuated Allied soldiers during World War II from the beaches of Dunkirk in France.

“Now we’re here. We’re going to save some people off Sanibel who are cut off from the world right now,” he said. “So it’s very appropriate.”

Ian tore away several sections of the causeway that was the island’s only access to the Florida mainland. As of Thursday night, dozens of people remained stranded, according to Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith.

At least five sections of the Sanibel Causeway – which connects Sanibel and Captiva Iislands to the mainland — were washed away by the storm, Lee County officials said.

Twelve people were rescued off Sanibel Island with injuries, and about 40 people were rescued without injury, the mayor told CNN on Thursday. Sanibel City Manager Dana Souza reported the two fatalities.

Asked if the city is currently livable, the mayor said, “Honestly, no.”

An aerial view of beach erosion near the Casa Ybel Beach Resort on Sanibel Island, Florida, after Hurricane Ian.

Many beach huts along Sanibel Island’s shores were wiped out by Ian’s storm surge, new aerial photos from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show. Most homes appear to have suffered roof damage along with damage from the storm surge and flooding.

“The devastation is unbelievable,” Stern told CNN. “This is true carnage. It’s a war zone.”

Nancy and Robert Sharon were among the people Stern’s outfit and Cajun Navy volunteers rescued Thursday.

“I heard they weren’t going to do anything after the bridge shut down, but my grandkids are in Ohio and she was crying hysterically when I talked to her,” Nancy Sharon said.

Her grandchildren contacted the Cajun Navy and Project Dynamo, begging them to search for proof of life.

Damage from Hurricane Ian: The causeway connecting mainland Florida to the island crumbled into the sea

Some rescue teams were airlifted to the islands, where they went door-to-door checking on residents, according to Florida State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis. The Florida National Guard assisted in the effort, Patronis added.

An estimated 6,400 people lived in the city of Sanibel in April 2021, according to the US Census Bureau. The islands are home to a number of hotels and resorts as their beaches draw a significant amount of tourists each year.

A 2017 City of Sanibel count measured annual bridge traffic over the dam at over 3 million vehicles.

Lee County officials were assessing damage and also conducting search and rescue operations, Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais said Thursday.

Federal urban search and rescue teams were deployed from across the country.

All 15 shelters in the county that opened before the storm’s arrival remained open, Desjarlais said. About 4,000 people sought shelter late Wednesday.

“Given the amount of damage in society, I think it’s reasonable to expect that the shelters will start to fill up a little more. We have room for about 40,000 people,” the county manager added.

A boil water order was in place across the country, he said. Bridge inspections were also underway throughout the county. Officials hope all bridges will be inspected by Friday, Desjarlais said.

There was also “extensive damage to the buildings” on Sanibel Island, he said.

An aerial view of the Shallmar Cottages and Motel on Sanibel Island, Florida, after Hurricane Ian.

“I can tell you that in all these years I have not seen damage to Lee County from a storm like this. When you look at the barrier islands, especially from the air, it’s very clear to see where the storm made landfall,” said Desjarlais.

Sanibel was devastated, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday, adding that the area had been hit by a “biblical flood.”

“It washed away roads, it washed away structures that weren’t new and could withstand it,” he said.

The causeway will be rebuilt, DeSantis said. “But it’s not something that will happen overnight.”

Residents were urged to stay inside to avoid injury and allow first responders to assess the damage, Lee County officials said Thursday.

Watch US Coast Guard rescue woman from flooded neighborhood

Smith, the mayor of Sanibel, planned to fly out to the island on Friday. She told CNN’s John Berman that she saw some images of the damage for the first time on CNN and “it’s pretty emotional for me.”

DeSantis said messages continued to come in from families worried about their loved ones. But many of those stranded on the island are waving and thanking rescuers for coming, but are staying put for now, he said.

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