The images of Hurricane Ian’s aftermath show evidence of Florida’s increasingly dense development — flattened beach communities, boats heaved into piles, mobile homes scattered like toys.
But one of the most riveting early signs of the devastation came from a place with deep connections to a movement that has worked to keep bulldozers away from the state’s natural treasures.
Before dawn on Thursday, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Ian had wiped away parts of Sanibel Causeway, the only link between the mainland and Sanibel Island. Later, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that the island itself had suffered “biblical” destruction.
The causeway leads to a place of charming isolation, where people go for shelling and city officials work to keep away retail franchises, save for a Dairy Queen and a 7-Eleven that were grandfathered in. “Sanibel is and shall remain a barrier island sanctuary,” the city’s website proclaims.
Historians say Sanibel and neighboring Captiva Island have long worked to protect their pristine environment, while sharing a past that has largely been shaped by weather.
“The history of Southwest Florida remains tightly intertwined with hurricanes,” historian Gary Mormino wrote in his recent book, “Dreams in the New Century: Instant Cities, Shattered Hopes and Florida’s Turning Point.”
“Sanibel and Captiva were home to a fierce debate over the future and past.”
Originally inhabited by Calusa Indians, Sanibel was named “Santa Isabel” by Juan Ponce de Leon, after the queen of Spain, when he found the island in 1513 while searching for the Fountain of Youth. On his second trip there, Ponce De Leon was shot with an arrow soaked in poison and later died in Cuba, Mormino said in an interview.
The Spanish never successfully settled there, and in the 1800s a group of settlers were sent from New York to farm but were driven away by the Seminole Wars. Fishers and farmers found luck on the island, and in 1870 the U.S. government designated the Island as a “lighthouse reservation.”
Three years later, Sanibel was devastated by a hurricane.
In 1884, the lighthouse that became a Sanibel landmark was constructed to help cattlemen from the mainland more easily find the island.
A hurricane in 1921 split the island in two, and another in 1926 decimated its agriculture industry with a 14-foot storm surge. In the years after that, a ferry from the mainland allowed hospitality to emerge as an industry, prompting visits from guests like President Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Ford and Charles and Anne Lindbergh.
But the decades following World War II saw a booming Florida that raised alarms.
In the 1950s, writers like John D. MacDonald warned against “dredge and fill projects” and building along the coastline, said Jack Davis, a University of Florida professor of environmental history and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
The Sanibel of today “really came to be because of the foresight of people in the 1970s who were alarmed by the rapid development in construction in Florida and barrier islands in the post-World War II period, the ’50s, ’60s and into the 1970s,” Davis said.
In the 1960s, he said, developers lobbied for the causeway.
“There was quite a bit of opposition to it from people living on the island,” he said. “They liked their seclusion. They were opposed to the idea of being connected to the mainland and many of them were worried about it turning into what Treasure Island has in Pinellas County, this condo canyon.”
Though the causeway was completed in 1963, Davis said Sanibel’s residents ultimately won.
Arriving on scene at the perfect time, Mormino said, was Porter Goss, founder of the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation. He later became mayor of Sanibel, a Republican congressman and head of the CIA under President George W. Bush.
“He moves to Sanibel precisely at the moment Sanibel is about to be overdeveloped and rallied Sanbellians from the grassroots level,” Mormino said of Goss. ”From an environmental point of view, Sanibel is considered one of the models out there.”
By 1974, Sanibel formed its own city government and created land-use restrictions. A large percentage of the island remained conservation land through the JD “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
“This was bipartisan,” Davis said. “Republicans and Democrats alike were coming together, and that’s the way it still is today in Sanibel. They are very protective of the natural environment and maintaining low density.”
The low level of development and mangroves encircling the island kept a slice of Florida intact as condos and artificially fortified beach towns popped up elsewhere. “Sanibel became fabulously desirable in the 1970s and 80s,” Mormino said.
Hurricane Charley in 2004 left the islands without a working sewage system, electricity or water, Mormino wrote in his book.
In Hurricane Ian’s wake, images shared on social media showed the Sanibel lighthouse intact but the keepers’ homes nearby had been destroyed. At a news conference, DeSantis said the causeway will be rebuilt.
As more reports of the damage come in, Davis said he hopes the natural barriers and conservation land may have protected Sanibel from even worse.
But he believes the calls of people earlier in history should be heeded.
“We’ve been building in harm’s way,” he said. “We refuse to hear the caution of hurricanes. We refer to them as natural disasters, which is offensive to me because then we blame nature, not ourselves and let ourselves off the hook. As much as I think people there have practiced smart development, we really shouldn’t be on that barrier Island.... We shouldn’t be on any of these barrier islands.”
Federal assistance, he said, often lessens the mental risk of living in harm’s way. In the wake of hurricanes, he said, developers often come in and buy up land cheap with the support of local officials in desperation.
“It will be interesting to see if we learn any lessons from this or if we continue to do things the old way,” he said.
Mormino said he too wonders if Hurricane Ian will alter the course of Florida’s history.
“This is a wakeup call, but it hasn’t seemed to awaken people in the last decade or so,” he said. “I’m a pretty optimistic person. But Florida, it’s breaking my heart.”
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Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage
FEMA: Floridians hurt by Ian can now apply for FEMA assistance. Here’s how.
THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.
POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.
WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?
WHAT TO DO IF HURRICANE DAMAGES YOUR HOME: Stay calm, then call your insurance company.
MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.