Sanibel Island residents return to survey the damage

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Boatload by boatload—and the odd helicopter belly—people return to Sanibel.

The city has not officially estimated how many have made it back after the now bridge-free island reopened on Wednesday. Unofficially, things have been pretty quiet, reports resident Bridgit Stone-Budd, who weathered the storm in her self-described tree house with her mother, Linda Miller, husband, Dan, and dogs Sophie, Adrian and puppy Goose.

Residents and workers arrive with boots, backpacks and braced for the worst. The 18 square kilometer barrier island they stepped back on is staggeringly different from the one they left before Hurricane Ian put their lives on the line on September 28.

Silence reigns now, except for the occasional thump of a Chinook or the passing roar of a Humvee. The smells are also gone. The usual sun-warmed salt air with mangrovey musk has been replaced by something more menacing: diesel, drying sewage, hot plastic.

The green wall of native trees that shaded the main stretch, Periwinkle Way, looks blown by, lying splintered or sheared off in jagged clumps. The wind tore open stately homes, pushed cars into mangroves and littered the place with debris.

With the Gulf waters as a battering ram, the storm smashed through the raised 3-mile causeway that once connected the island to the mainland. An alligator commanded the post office. Staff at the famed JN “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge have not yet released a damage assessment.

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Of course, Sanibel is not the only storm-stricken Gulf Barrier Island. Estero Island, home to Fort Myers Beach and Pine Island, with Bokeelia, Saint James City and Pineland, is also on the rise.

If the other two attracted more working families and retirees, Sanibel’s collars were generally white or found atop golf shirts instead of Hanes Ts. Sanibel’s income per population is $90,146 and its median home value $703,800 compared to Fort Myers Beach’s $63,402 and $474,900 and Pine Island’s $44,995 and $240,600.

Sanibel has always attracted plenty of well-heeled visitors, some of whom settle: Johnny Depp, Eric Clapton and NBC weatherman Willard Scott, who made the island his second home. And like Bridgit, famous author and restaurateur Randy Wayne White went down the storm with singer-songwriter wife Wendy Webb.

Not sure what’s next, but Sanibel resident says ‘we’ve got each other’

Yet there are plenty of islanders who defy the rich-people stereotype. On Friday morning, Joyce and Dick Houston, who have known each other since they were 16 (and are now 78 and 79), trudged home. He is a retired engineer; she worked in the fashion industry and taught tai chi up north before they moved here for good.

Loaded with tote bags, coolers and thermoses clinking with ice, they were on their way to their trailer at Periwinkle Park & ​​Campground. The tropically funky palm and orchid-adorned island retreat was known for its collection of exotic parrots, macaws and lemurs, most of which drowned in the storm.

After vacationing on the island since 1985, the Houstons had an epiphany.

“I said, ‘You know what?’ I want to live here one day,” Joyce said. “No headaches, no blacktop road … So we sold our beach house in Lewes, Delaware — sold everything — and bought us a cell phone,” she said with a laugh about their vintage home at a large lot backed up to a mangrove creek.

They lovingly remodeled their half-century-old trailer: custom kitchen, sliding barn doors, shiplap siding, white-painted wicker, then settled in for “Some of the Best Years of Our Lives.”

They loved their neighbors, one of whom is a heron named Ada (after Joyce’s mother). “She comes knocking on the back door every day and I give her chicken hearts,” she said, “that’s filet mignon for birds.”

Then she shuddered.

“So you can imagine what my place is going to smell like – I have them in my freezer.”

Once at their house, where half a bottle of Glenlivet had flown out to settle under an ixora, Dick raised himself through a porch window—probably the one that triggered the Scotch—and finally pushed open a door.

The storm had coated the floor with mud and overturned furniture. The swollen maze was made even more treacherous by the still slippery ooze underfoot. The Houstons squeezed past overturned sofas and stepped vegetables over glass tabletops and a handmade shell frame. Soon they would be opening garbage bags to throw out soaked treasures and salvage what they could.

The place was not insured, Joyce said. “Too old.”

They’re not sure what’s coming next, but they’re sure of one thing, she said: “We have each other.”

More: The first 12 hours left on Sanibel ‘very successful’, says the city manager

‘Sanibel has been so great to us…we’ll get through it’

Some, like Jeff and Noah Weigel, went back before the official opening. On Monday, father and son kayaked to the island – four hours each way. In the early afternoon they were about to disembark for Bunche Beach. A handful of laminated plaques stuck from the top of Noah’s unzipped backpack – the friendly restaurants hang on their walls after a good review in the local paper – which, in fact, these were.

Noah’s father, Jeff, owns the Sanibel Deli and Coffee Factory, which he opened in 2008; one of the clippings is a story from just after their opening; another gave them Best Pizza honors.

“One I’m really proud of was when we were one of six restaurants in Lee County with perfect health department scores, so we got that, too,” Jeff said.

To get there, they kayaked under what was left of the dam. The landscape changes were surreal, Jeff said. “It took me a minute to realize where we were. The whole area, one side used to be grass and fishing pier and (it’s) just not there anymore. It’s just opened up wide.”

But he wanted to get to the place where he has poured the last 15 years of his life.

“I started from scratch. So dollar-wise, I don’t know how I would put a number on it, but I worked seven days a week for years and years and years. It affects your life, it affects your health and everything else,” said he.

The deli building is still there, he said, “but the inside looks like somebody picked it up and shook it … the kitchen is trashed. It’s just destroyed.”

As for the future, “I just don’t know,” he said. “I mean, if somebody said, ‘Go ahead and start cleaning up,’ I don’t even know how … There’s destruction everywhere.”

And yet he doesn’t plan to quit, at least not yet. “Through the oil spill, the housing market crash, the pandemic … Sanibel has been so great to us and supported us through everything. It’s just a tight community. We’ll get through it, but it’s going to be a long, long time.”

Hero supplies bikes for the ‘world’s longest road’

Island life owner Billy Kirkland of Billy’s Rentals has become a hero to those returning without vehicles. Do you need a bike? Take one, he told residents at a town meeting last week. “Anyone who wants a bike, stop by,” he said, “All I ask (is) you get it from the bottom of the pile, so I don’t have to.”

More: Sanibel’s ‘CROW isn’t going anywhere’ despite damage from Hurricane Ian

Wheels and wire baskets are a lifesaver on the exposed, sun-swept streets, as local force of nature Bridgit will tell you: “Periwinkle is the longest road in the word, I’ve come to realize.”

This morning, dreadlocks barely gathered behind a cerise scarf, a bright jumble of bracelets on her wrists, she pedals up Periwinkle on a Billy’s bike, checking on the homes of friends who have called in desperate pleas—carefully .

“The roads don’t belong to us — the roads belong to them,” she said of the military and first responders. “Those trucks blow past you like you’re not even there.”

But Bridgit doesn’t complain; her restaurant, The Pecking Order, was damaged but not beyond repair, although all the food was lost.

“We filled a container with soooooo much chicken,” she said, “and there’s so much sludge, but as soon as we get water, we’re going to suck it out of there … I can’t wait to get it back on.” She is optimistic that it will be sooner rather than later: “We are on the same network as the firehouse.”

In the meantime, she searches neighbors’ homes and keeps a journal via her TikTok videos, which have become a first-hand hurricane journal:

Saturday 24 September: “It’s not time to panic, it’s time to prepare.”

Monday 26 September: “Panic has set in.” Later that day: “Stay safe. A hurricane of a lifetime.”

Tuesday 27 September: “He is coming.”

Wednesday 28 September at 04:00: “Power just went out,” so at 12:22: He’s definitely getting stronger, Two friends’ houses are completely under water,” then 1:00 p.m.: “Holy s?:!@ the wave is here.”

Her post-storm records have detailed recovery: the landing of a fleet of Chinooks, the establishment of military checkpoints, the arrival of water and supplies. She has also been pleased to see the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, known for its environmental work, turn to hurricane relief. “SCCF helps a LOT,” she said.

She counts herself among the blessed and lucky (despite occasional kisses from puppy Goose, who can’t resist dead fish).

“Our yard and house, from the bottom of our front porch, everything down there is trash,” she said. That includes their vehicles and Dan’s work truck for his construction company, but the upper floors are livable, she says, “and hey, it forced me to clean and declutter, so that’s good.”

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