In the Aftermath of Hurricane Ian: Stories from Southwest Florida 

Words and photography by Katie Gretter

Over winter break, I went with my family to Sanibel Island, just off the coast of Fort Myers in Southwest Florida. It’s a place we visit every year because my grandparents have had a house there since the 80s. I love the island for its parks, beaches, and wonderful community, which promotes an enjoyment of nature and conservation of its beauty. 75% of the land is nature reserve maintained through organizations such as the J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge and the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation.  

This past fall, Southwest Florida was hit with a high category 4 hurricane, the latest in a series of intense weather events exacerbated by climate change. It came on the tails of Hurricane Fiona which struck Puerto Rico and left much of the island without power. Although the community prepared, Hurricane Ian struck hard. I heard many stories from my grandmother and her friends of residents who were forced to signal from the roof of their houses for help from helicopters doing search and rescue. Hurricane Ian peeled up pavement, dumped boats, refrigerators, and chemicals in the trees and water ways. It also caused a toxic algae bloom that decimated fish populations and impacted ecosystems for those animals left. The storm dumped saltwater into freshwater areas, which will affect ecosystems regrowth for freshwater species and trees experiencing high salt levels in soil. Following the hurricane, there was little communication with the island because the causeway connecting it to the mainland had been destroyed. The only way for Sanibel residents to access their homes was chartering a trip by boat or helicopter. 

I returned to Sanibel three months following the catastrophe. We went to support my grandma and the place we love so much. It was not the trip I was used to, which is normally filled with bike rides to town for a cup of coffee, kayak trips on the bayou, long beach walks collecting shells, watching ospreys and pelicans scoop up fish from the sea, and trips to the local farmer’s market. Instead, we entered a barren island with piles of trash and branches carefully cleared from main stretches of road. Buildings were dark and abandoned and the streets were silent of birdcalls and empty of the carefree vibes of vacation. We are lucky that my grandma’s house was kept in tack; I saw many houses that were completely destroyed or had large chunks of roof, porches, or walls missing, replaced by blue tarps that flapped in the wind. 

The morning after we arrived, my family and I wanted to see the state of the island. Although we had seen some pictures and videos, we didn’t understand the extent of the damage. In the morning, looking out from my grandma’s porch, her sea grape tree (which used to sprawl the extent of the yard and was filled with orchids hanging from the branches and leaves that glowed in the sun) was reduced to a small stump. Now, we could see across the street where there once stood a wall of thick trees and bushes, but which was replaced by an apocalyptic field of tan sticks drying in the sun, going on for what seemed to be miles across the bayou. 

We took a bike ride down the island to see the changes at some of our favorite spots. Many places we went to were destroyed or abandoned, including the Sanibel-Captiva General Store and the Lazy Flamingo, a staple restaurant. As we rode along, there were doors in stuck in the branches of trees, couches and all their cushions, miscellaneous trash, splatters of paint along the sidewalk, bottles of bleach and cleaning products left open in the bayou after being dumped by the strong winds. The water glowed iridescent and uninhabitable. 

There were piles of debris lining the sidewalks everywhere we went, which large semis would scoop up by a crane to dump in the back of their truck to take to designated dump sites. These sites were previously wooded and protected areas that had been wiped clear for mountains of trash. One site had been an ongoing fight between developers and conservationists because the area was a nesting site for bald eagles. The people of Sanibel had raised money to conserve the land and had reached their goal before the hurricane. My mom and I were devastated to see it being used to field trash, and it made us wonder what would come of the land following the hurricane. 

Across the island, there is worry for the future. Sanibel has not seen this level of destruction in decades. Moreover, the location has recently become a tourist destination for its incredible shelling and relaxed, adorable town. There is worry this spike in interest will bring changing norms of development as high damage costs force previous owners to move. Sanibel has historically been a haven for those deeply connected to the natural world with its comprehensive conservation legislation known as the Sanibel Plan. This conservation helped Sanibel in the aftermath of Ian as there is visible difference in the damage inflicted on Sanibel and that which was experienced by Fort Myers Beach. Sanibel’s natural barriers of mangroves and other native species provided a wall against the high wind gusts and storm surges while the concrete streets of Fort Myers left buildings unprotected. As each city rebuilds, there is anticipation whether the restart will positively or negatively benefit the ecological world. The Florida legislative session has begun with these issues being heavily contested, so the event will be something to follow for Sanibel’s future.  

I have hope in the Sanibel community. FISH, one of the organizations on the island has done a great job providing support to those remaining on the island by providing FEMA resources and coordinating recycling of damaged goods to be fixed and redistributed. For example, when we visited the island, the organization was giving away free bikes for residents replacing those damaged or lost in the storm. Restaurants, grocery stores, and hardware stores are reopening as well to provide support to Sanibel residents. Coupled with the community building back, you can already begin to see plants blossoming new greenery and birds rebuilding nests as nature bounces back following Ian. Many native species in Sanibel have adapted to hurricane weather conditions such as the Buttonwood tree, which sends out leaves along its trunk to continue the process of photosynthesis after losing the rest of its leaves in high winds. These were some of the first spots of green that you could see peeking out against the barren brown, but they were a wonderful sign of hope for the future of the island. 

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