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Returning to Fort Myers Beach Just 5 Months After Hurricane Ian

The category 5 storm was the costliest hurricane in Florida history, causing $112.9 billion in damage and 66 direct deaths. Many residents cut their losses and left, but for those who remain, recovery is slow and ongoing.

(TNS) — “I want to know, have you ever seen the rain?” went the well-known Creedence Clearwater Revival refrain, sung by a local guitarist perched on his stool inside MudBugs Cajun Kitchen on Sanibel Island, Florida.

The island saw more than its fair share of rain during Hurricane Ian, which inundated the island with 12 feet of storm surge and flooded some homes up to the roofs. The storm has become a fact of life and a collective lived experience for everyone in this area, the elephant in the room that nobody can stop talking about.

After all, it was the costliest hurricane in Florida history, blamed for $112.9 billion in damage and 66 direct deaths, according to a National Hurricane Center report. Many Lee County residents cut their losses and left the area, but the real theme of human resilience comes through in those who chose to stay and rebuild at whatever cost.

For a few days in late February and early March, I stayed at Latitude 26 Waterfront Resort, just across the bridge facing the bay near Fort Myers Beach. Five months after the storm, it was hard to stomach the remaining signs of devastation, but it was remarkable to see the region returning to life with some bars, restaurants and shops again bustling with business.

I was inspired by leaders like Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith, who gave out her personal phone number amid the storm and celebrated the relighting of the island’s iconic lighthouse five months later. Jacki Liszak, the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce president, lost her hotel, the Sea Gypsy Inn, gift shop, chamber of commerce building and dozens of vacation rental properties — yet spent countless hours dedicated to helping area businesses bounce back.

When describing the experience of vacationing in Lee County less than a full year after a near Category 5 storm struck, it’s hard not to focus on the devastation that still exists: boats forcefully wedged into mangroves, beachfront hotels that were leveled and massive piles of debris that still remain.

While beachfront accommodations are a little harder to come by, the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau has tallied nearly 10,000 guests rooms open for guests. There are places for people to stay and things to do, but marketing after Ian has proven to be a delicate balance.

“It is my job to say, ‘The sky is blue, the water is warm and the sand is soft.’ But if we’re not truthful with people when they come, and their experience is bad, that’s a poor reflection on our dedication to them,” said Tamara Pigott, the bureau’s executive director. “We try to be very truthful with people and honest about what’s going on.”

Still, tourists can embark on sunset tiki tours or pirate cruises, get up-close with wildlife at Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve or rent a personal watercraft for the day. There are plenty of places to dine, drink and be merry, even amid the tireless recovery effort. Visit Fort Myers has an entire section of its website dedicated to sharing what’s open and good news on the long journey to a full recovery.

Some beaches are still closed, but even the tiny stretches of shoreline you can visit come with a disclaimer. “Caution: Potential buried debris in sand and water,” reads a sign on Blind Pass Beach.

While riding my rental bike across the bridge that connects the Sanibel and Captiva islands, something clicked.

While beachside attractions and eateries are part of the draw for such tourism destinations, I firmly believe it’s nature that has the most significant drawing power for those who choose to visit or live on this scenic stretch of Florida coast.

Right across from leveled lots and shacks in shambles, I noticed the soothing sounds of waves lapping onto the sand while tranquil beachgoers looked for shells. Later, I returned to find an epic sunset casting an amber glow over the sea while a few visitors gathered to relish the gorgeous conclusion of the day.

Nobody wanted to be anywhere but there in those moments. It only makes sense why some aren’t ready to give up their slice of paradise.

It was also interesting to note how natural resilience played its role in preserving some of those beloved havens.

I visited Cabbage Key (by paddling there from Pine Island, something I would absolutely not recommend). I learned how the island’s historic restaurant opened on generator power 17 days after the storm. The mangroves and natural vegetation served as a protective barrier on the island, where only 20 of 111 acres are developed.

Sanibel Island, which comprises nearly 70 percent conservation land, suffered the worst damage where beachfront hotels and condos had no protective barrier from the hurricane. But the newly reopened J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge fared remarkably well in its predominantly natural state.

The strength of both nature and humans has been on full display since the catastrophic weather event that struck in late September 2022. The path to recovery isn’t easy, but there’s a collective unshakable will to keep moving forward.

Several songs later, that same musician at MudBug broke into a beautiful rendition of “Here Comes the Sun.” Plucking his strings, he reminded the small and lively crowd at the restaurant, “It’s alright.”

The sun is shining, the area is recovering and tourists are eager to return. The resilient humans in the region refuse to be beaten down, even by something as massive and life-altering as Hurricane Ian.

Heading inland across the causeway that night, I couldn’t help but notice the LED light blinking atop Sanibel’s iconic luminescent tower. It’s a beacon of hope. The island is alive.

©2023 Orlando Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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