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Times of the Islands Magazine

Resilience and Community: The Path to Rebuilding Sanibel Island

Dec 13, 2022 08:00AM ● By Francesca Block

Photo by Josh Sorenson on Unsplash

There’s something magical about driving onto Sanibel Island. 

All forms of worry melt away as the three-mile causeway bridge lifts you above the vast ocean, leading you to a lush paradise – at least that’s always how it has felt for me over the past 23 years since I first started traveling across the bridge in my car seat. 

Sanibel has been a part of my family since before I was born. In their later years, my great-grandparents Frances and Max Amdur spent each morning they lived on Sanibel walking to the lighthouse, shelling, and picking up their newspapers at Huxters Market and Deli. They were founding members of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands, where my family are still members to this day. My grandmother has owned a home on the island since the 1980s, honoring her parents' legacies through creating an atmosphere in which all of our family could come together each year. When I think of Sanibel, I think of getting lost bike riding through the mangroves to Ding Darling with my cousin Matthew, I think of hectic yet delicious family meals with over 20 people of all ages squished into my grandmother’s living room, and I think of shelling along the beach with my mom, hoping that one day we will find our prized junonia shell. 

Now, when longtime residents of the tropical oasis drive onto the causeway bridge – which has now been piecemealed back together after Ian’s 150-mile winds washed parts of its foundations away – they feel fear, sadness, and anxiety over the future. 

“I guess I feel like I'm heading into the unknown,” said Emilie Alfino, a 20-year resident of the island and the director of the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village.  

The devastation is vast and overwhelming: houses entirely flooded, the beloved Periwinkle Trailer Park pummeled to be nothing but twisted wires and debris, beach chairs, furniture, and family memories strewn across the mangroves covering all twelve miles of the island. 

“I’m sorry to say it, but it looks like a wasteland right now,” Alfino said.

 But if residents know anything about the Sanibel community, they recognize that it is a force even nature’s most powerful storms cannot wash away. 

 “We see a lot of love on the island, a lot of hope and spirit,” said Daniela Jaeger, Publisher of TOTI Media Magazines and a resident of Sanibel. “And of course, it will take time to heal, but at the end of the road there will be joy, there will be a good outcome, there will be a flourishing island again.” 

Conservation at the forefront of rebuilding efforts

Growing up, I loved to rattle off facts about Sanibel Island – my favorite being that the island did not have any traffic lights so as not to disturb the turtles during nesting season.  

It’s this passion and commitment to conservation that Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation CEO James Evans said is “still one-of-a-kind today.” And it’s one he said he is confident the island will continue to foster as it recovers from a once-in-a-century-type natural disaster.  

“I think the conservation spirit continues to shine bright even after the devastation of Hurricane Ian,” he said. 

Evans’ confidence is rooted in the region’s long and committed history to conservation. 

 Starting back in the 1930s, Captiva resident and Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist J.N. Ding Darling first brought conservation to the forefront through his work with the U.S. Biological Survey, the precursor to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Shortly after the incorporation of Sanibel in 1974, the city developed the Sanibel Plan, a unique land use ordinance which resisted overdevelopment and maintained an explicit commitment to preserving land and wildlife habitats. Today, Sanibel is a sanctuary for wildlife, where Evans said over 70% of the island is dedicated to conservation and “wildlife habitats [are] at the top of the community’s hierarchy of values.” 

These values have guided Sanibel throughout its long and storied history, and city councilor Michael Miller said they continue to guide residents today. 

“The community has always supported the Sanibel Plan,” he said. “Now recovering from a hurricane is a little different, but I still think it creates a kind of foundation of solidarity, of a collective will. We’ve been together in so many ways in the past, and I think this is just an expansion of that effort.”

As neighbors help each other clear out debris from their yards and businesses slowly begin to open back up, the island’s wildlife is already returning with a strong presence. 

Jaeger recalls returning to the island, overcome with the damage of her own home and surrounding community. But as she turned onto Rabbit Road, she saw a large alligator blocking her path. Rather than be frustrated, she laughed.  

“If wildlife is coming back, it's a sign,” she recalled telling her husband, Friedrich Jaeger. 

The resilience of the island’s wildlife mirrors the resilience of the island’s community, Evans said. 

 “It says a lot about our community, we protect those natural habitats, we protect the native wildlife and vegetation,” Evans said. “Like that, our communities are resilient and will come back.”

“We came back then; we can do it again” 

Alfino said throughout history, Sanibel has battled tough storms before and bounced back with purpose. The hurricane of 1926, in which saltwater permeated the island and killed off all farming crops, may have altered the island’s development path, but it failed to stop it from evolving into the sanctuary it is today. Trapped in the eye of hurricanes in 1945, 1960, and more recently during Hurricane Charley in 2004, the island always found a way to recover, she said. 

“We came back then; we can do it again,” she said. 

Residents are not oblivious to the realities before them. Miller said the city is still working to clear out debris – of which there is more than twice as much as during Hurricane Charley, he said. His own condominium will likely be uninhabitable for up to a year, he said. 

Even so, he said there are still so many glimmers of hope. The Sanibel Recreation Center, located at 3880 Sanibel Captiva Road, reopened to the public on Tuesday Nov. 29, offering a spot for residents to gather and access important infrastructure such as Wi-Fi. 

“I think that’s a big step,” he said.  

Residents entering the island today see the widespread damage, the economic tolls and they find themselves riddled with anxiety over the potential of a future storm. Yet, as they stand on the land that has given so much to them – their family and friends, their memories, their appreciation of nature – they feel a commitment to build it back stronger and more resilient than ever before. 

“We’re all in this together, we’re all committed to rebuilding and we are going to go forward on that basis,” Miller said.