Sanibel Island: A ‘war zone’ where some foreigners choose to leave and others to stay

Sanibel Island, Florida

An elderly couple who weathered Hurricane Ian at their Sanibel Island home in Florida could not agree on evacuation after parts of the causeway to the mainland were destroyed.

“Were going. We’re going,” the unidentified man told his partner as she looked down from the upper porch of the house.

“But where?” she asked.

Fort Myers, the man and members of a rescue mission who arrived by boat told him.

“The bridge is down.”

“I’m not ready to go,” she said Thursday, staying behind.

Ian left at least two dead on the barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, and volunteers from the Louisiana Cajun Navy and other relief groups went on boats to check on the roughly 200 households that did not evacuate. .

“When Americans are in trouble in tough places – usually we do war zones and conflict zones, but Hurricane Ian qualifies,” said Bryan Stern, a former military intelligence officer more used to operating in places like Ukraine and Afghanistan.

The stern is co-founder of Project Dynamo, a group of veterans who locate at-risk Americans in conflict zones and transport them to safety. Its name comes from the operation that evacuated Allied soldiers during World War II from the beaches of Dunkirk in France.

“Now here we are. We are going to save some people off Sanibel, which is currently cut off from the world,” he said. “So it’s very apropos.”

Ian tore up several parts of the causeway that was the island’s only access to mainland Florida. As of Thursday night, dozens of people were left stranded, according to Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith.

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At least five sections of the Sanibel Causeway – which connects Sanibel and Captiva Ifrom the islands to the mainland – were swept away by the storm, Lee County officials said.

Twelve people were rescued off Sanibel Island with injuries and about 40 people were rescued without injuries, the mayor told CNN on Thursday. Sanibel City Manager Dana Souza reported both deaths.

When asked if the city was currently habitable, the mayor replied, “Frankly, no.”

An aerial view of beach erosion near Casa Ybel Beach Resort on Sanibel Island, Florida, after Hurricane Ian.

Many beach cottages that lined the shores of Sanibel Island were swept away by storm surge Ian, according to new aerial imagery from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Most homes appear to have suffered roof damage, as well as storm surge and flood damage.

“The destruction is unbelievable,” Stern told CNN. “It’s real carnage. It’s a war zone.

Nancy and Robert Sharon were among those Stern’s team and Cajun Navy volunteers rescued on Thursday.

“I heard they weren’t going to do anything after the bridge was closed, but my granddaughters are in Ohio and she was crying hysterically when I talked to her,” Nancy Sharon said.

Her grandchildren contacted the Cajun Navy and Project Dynamo and begged them to verify the evidence of life.

Hurricane Ian damage: The causeway connecting mainland Florida to the island collapsed into the ocean

Some rescue teams were flown by helicopter to the islands, where they went door-to-door checking on residents, according to Florida State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis. The Florida National Guard was assisting in the effort, Patronis added.

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An estimated 6,400 people lived in the city of Sanibel in April 2021, according to the US Census Bureau. The islands are home to a number of hotels and resorts, as their beaches attract a significant number of tourists each year.

A 2017 city of Sanibel tally measured the bridge’s annual traffic on the causeway at more than 3 million vehicles.

Lee County officials were assessing the damage and also conducting search and rescue operations, Lee County Executive Roger Desjarlais said Thursday.

Federal urban search and rescue teams have been deployed across the country.

The 15 county shelters that opened before the storm landed remained open, Desjarlais said. About 4,000 people took refuge on Wednesday evening.

“Given the extent of the damage in the community, I think it’s reasonable to expect these shelters to start filling up a bit more. We have room for about 40,000 people,” the county executive added.

A boil water order was in place across the county, he said. Bridge inspections were also underway across the county. Officials hope all bridges will be inspected by Friday, Desjarlais said.

There was also “extensive building damage” on Sanibel Island, he said.

An aerial view of the Shallmar Cottages and Motel on Sanibel Island, Florida, after Hurricane Ian.

“I can tell you that in all these years I haven’t seen any damage in Lee County from a storm like this. When you look at the barrier islands, especially from the air, it is very clear to see where the storm came ashore,” Desjarlais said.

Sanibel has been devastated, Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters Thursday, adding that the area had been hit by a “Biblical storm surge.”

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“He took away roads, he took away structures that weren’t new and could withstand this,” he said.

The causeway will be rebuilt, DeSantis said. “But it’s not something that will happen overnight.”

Residents were asked to stay indoors to avoid injury and allow first responders to assess the damage, Lee County officials said Thursday.

Watch the US Coast Guard rescue a woman from a flooded neighborhood

Smith, the mayor of Sanibel, had planned to fly to the island on Friday. She told CNN’s John Berman that she was seeing footage of the damage for the first time on CNN and “it’s quite emotional for me.”

DeSantis said messages kept coming in from families concerned about their loved ones. But many of those stranded on the island are waving and thanking rescuers for coming but staying put for now, he said.

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