Gulf of Mexico
As many as one in ten structures on the island were completely destroyed.

FL - The Precarious Future of Sanibel Island

After Hurricane Ian, should the government help people rebuild, or help them leave?

Sanibel Island is twelve miles long, three miles at its widest, and peaks around four feet above sea level. It’s a barrier island, which is to say that it sits entirely on shifting sands, three miles off the coast of southwest Florida. A causeway connecting it to Fort Myers, on the mainland, was built in 1963; a decade later, amid a modest population boom, county commissioners approved the Sanibel Plan, which restricted development to just a third of the island. Among the protected places is the Ding Darling wildlife refuge, a mangrove forest set aside by Harry Truman, in 1945, where I went birding with my grandparents as a kid.

My mother’s parents, Joseph and Helen Sierer, built a second home on Sanibel, a single-story dwelling with a concrete foundation and storm shutters in a community called Chateau Sur Mer, in 1972. Joe spent hours on a little weeding bench, tidying their garden, while Helen painted pictures of the island’s historic lighthouse and its seabirds. They went shelling on the beaches, where the Scotch bonnet, the lion’s paw, and the elusive junonia could be found. My brother and I came in the summer, and were always back in school when storm season arrived, so I thought of the island as a place of gentle breezes. My grandparents sold their home in the mid-nineties. Joe told my mom, at the time, that they’d “dodged a bullet” when it came to hurricanes.

There are some four hundred barrier islands in the United States. Almost all of them are on the East and Gulf Coasts, and all are vulnerable to big storms. The Outer Banks, a series of islands in North Carolina, were radically altered by Hurricane Irene, in 2011, which cut new inlets, created new beaches, and destroyed countless homes. A year later, up the coast, Hurricane Sandy bisected Fire Island, near New York, and washed away more than half of its total volume of sand. In 2017, Hurricane Irma wrought such havoc on Florida’s barrier islands that people talked about “Irmageddon.” This past September, Hurricane Ian brought winds to Sanibel that exceeded a hundred and fifty miles per hour, and a storm surge of more than ten feet. The causeway crumpled at both ends. Four people on the island were killed, and more than a hundred others died elsewhere.

“Our mangrove buffers and sea grapes and buttonwood trees protected a great many of our homes,” Bob Brooks, a seventy-two-year-old retired manufacturer’s representative who lives on Sanibel full time, told me recently. “Like they’ve protected our coastline for centuries.” Brooks and his wife, Nancy, previously lived on the Jersey Shore (“Sandy’s surge was nothing like this”) and the Outer Banks (“plenty of bad weather”). According to a member of Sanibel’s city council, as many as one in ten structures on the island were completely destroyed, or damaged beyond repair, though it will take months to assess the wreckage precisely.

Residents are now figuring out how to pay for repairs and rebuilding, and some essential questions are not yet fully answered. How much will insurance cover—and what will insurance cost moving forward? Should the federal government help, and, if so, how much? Should the government instead be helping people to leave?

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