SANIBEL — At 1,000 feet above the ground, Hurricane Ian’s wake of destruction seems endless.
Downed trees are scattered like spilled matchsticks. Abandoned boats lie stranded on land. Blue roofs cover thousands of homes in the region, the product of federal emergency assistance after yet another major hurricane made landfall in low-lying Florida.
It has been almost three months since the Category 4 storm brought 150 mph winds and up to 15 feet of storm surge to Southwest Florida. Ian’s official death toll stands at 144 people, with the majority of those deaths occurring here in Lee County.
From the windows of a plane, it’s clear a long road to recovery remains.
But it’s also clear progress has been made.
Take, for example, the Sanibel Causeway: A section of the 3-mile causeway connecting Sanibel Island to the mainland was wiped out during the storm, immediately cutting off access to the island where about 6,300 people call home.
By Oct. 19, less than a month after landfall, crews had completed repairs. A steady stream of resident and cleanup vehicles were crossing the causeway Saturday morning. Visitors will be allowed to return to the island next month.
Federal aid nears $4 billion
From the back seat of a 1967 Piper Cherokee airplane, Emma Haydocy quietly watched as the rest of the badly damaged Sanibel Island came into full view.
Serving as the Florida policy manager for the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, Haydocy boarded the plane Saturday morning to document Ian’s damage and the ongoing toxic Red Tide blooms sparked in the storm’s aftermath. Scientists think the millions of gallons of polluted runoff leaving land in the most storm-ravaged counties, like Lee and Charlotte, may have contributed to Red Tide’s intensity this year. The algal blooms feed on nutrients often found in stormwater runoff.
Christopher Noth, a volunteer pilot with the Southwings conservation organization, banked toward Sanibel’s coastline. Battered homes lined the beach for miles.
“Wow,” Haydocy said, sighing. “Just devastating.”
Holly Smith, the Sanibel mayor, extended the state of local emergency for another week in a proclamation signed Dec. 19. The state of emergency has continuously been extended on a weekly basis since Sept. 26, and this latest extension runs through Monday. Smith also extended a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. and is keeping beaches closed to nonresidents, according to the proclamation. A handful of beachgoers were seen walking Sanibel’s quiet coastline Saturday.
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The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Monday that federal financial support for Hurricane Ian relief was nearing $4 billion since landfall. That money was sent to Florida for federal grants, disaster loans and flood insurance payments, according to the agency. Roughly 45,000 claims were filed to the National Flood Insurance Program to the tune of $1.4 billion.
At least 20,100 blue roofs have been installed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Ian’s aftermath, according to the latest federal numbers. That vast scale of roof repairs is clearly evident from the sky.
Lighthouse is a beacon of hope
Even the fifth-strongest hurricane to strike the United States couldn’t topple the nearly 140-year-old Sanibel Island Lighthouse. But it definitely felt the height of Hurricane Ian’s wrath.
The lighthouse keeper’s quarters and surrounding structures were swept into the sea by hours of storm surge. The 112-foot lighthouse lost one of its four support legs during the storm’s peak, according to the Florida Lighthouse Association. The group has provided at least $60,000 in emergency funds to help the Sanibel lighthouse and others that were impacted by the hurricane.
A handful of beachgoers stood at the base of the lighthouse Saturday morning, looking up at the iron tower. For many on Sanibel, the lighthouse has become a symbol of hope at a moment of tragedy.
“Hurricane Ian was one of the strongest hurricanes to make landfall on Florida’s west coast, bringing with it tremendous winds and storm surges,” the association wrote on its webpage after the storm. “Three of our historic light stations — Port Boca Grande, Gasparilla, and Sanibel Island — bore the brunt of Hurricane Ian’s wrath to devastating effect.”
More Hurricane Ian coverage from the Tampa Bay Times
Hurricane Ian’s environmental impacts
- How Hurricane Ian swamped Florida rivers: Before-and-after photos show record floods
- Hurricane Ian left millions of gallons of spilled wastewater, dirty runoff in its wake
- ‘It’ll start to kill me.’ Hurricane Ian caused gas and chemical spills, records show
Red Tide coverage