Natural disasters occur when we least expect them. Let’s face reality; there is never a good time for a tornado, hurricane, fire, or natural disaster. In September of 2022, Category 4 Hurricane Ian struck the southwestern Florida Coast. Destruction on all levels hit the area hard. Sanibel Island, a beautiful slice of paradise, took a brutal hit from this natural disaster. The time you spend in a disaster area as recovery is taking place can help determine the success of the area’s future. Safety is number one. Before you visit, you should always confirm with the local emergency management officials that visitors are welcome back to the area.
I visited Sanibel Island in January 2019 and could not wait for a return visit. Planning a return trip was, however, put on the back-burner as the pandemic came into play, and other travel plans took the forefront. In the summer of 2023, I revisited the area. I was a guest of the Fort Myers Beach Tourism office and spent some time exploring the area. I was solo in my exploration and learned of the impacts natural disasters have on a community.
Planning a vacation to a region impacted by a hurricane has most likely never been on your radar, but the people are the reason that you should.
Tourism Drives The Economy
Tourism is a large part of the economy on Sanibel Island. Before Hurricane Ian struck, there were more than 2,000 lodging accommodations on Sanibel Island. Today, there are fewer than 500 places to stay. Businesses, including lodging, continue to reopen weekly as more time passes. With thousands of places to stay off of Sanibel Island within a 20-minute drive, now is the perfect time to visit. The beaches are not crowded and you will receive top-notch customer service.
If a natural disaster strikes your favorite tourist destination, you can help them by visiting during the long, drawn-out recovery process. Energy, people, and new money flowing into these communities will help the area recover faster and get the residents’ lives back to normal as quickly as possible.
Returning To Sanibel Island After Hurricane Ian
Driving to Sanibel Island was different 10 months after Hurricane Ian struck. There were uprooted and damaged trees alongside some severe beach erosion. I do recall in 2019 how beautiful the drive to Sanibel Island was. My drive in July of 2023 was different. I did see trails of destruction, but I also saw beauty on the island that seemed to have been uncovered due to Hurricane Ian. You will see what you choose to see when you make the drive to Sanibel Island. There are scattered green palm trees and the water is as beautiful as you will recall.
Bowman’s Beach is one of the most popular beaches on Sanibel Island. I made the short walk out to the beach. New infrastructure and a walking trail highlighted my walk. It was evident that this area had been hit hard by Hurricane Ian but was recovering well. The playground had ropes around it and is scheduled to reopen sometime in the next 6 months.
I did encounter two men who lived and worked on Sanibel Island. These two gentlemen told me they were tired and were excited for everything to reopen. The passion for the island was shared through their stories about living there for the past few months. They stressed the importance of people visiting while things are still being repaired. Their livelihood and the future of businesses reopening lies in the hands of tourists returning to the island.
Tourism drives the economy on Sanibel Island. It’s a long, drawn-out process and I am grateful for people like these two dedicated employees. They did confirm that I was walking on a new trail to the beach; the hurricane destroyed the original path. They could quickly open a trail by eliminating a bridge to get to the beach.
Lighthouse Beach Park
If you have ever been to Lighthouse Beach Park on Sanibel Island, you know how special that beach area is. I had a “gut” punch to my stomach as I pulled into the parking lot and looked up at the historic lighthouse. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew that the lighthouse and the damage surrounding it had been in the news. The orange fencing around the lighthouse area was a quick reminder of how fragile Sanibel Island is. As you walk the beaches of Sanibel Island, wear shoes. Glass and other debris are still around Lighthouse Beach Park.
How To Support Local Businesses After Disaster
Businesses are gradually opening back up. Jerry’s Foods was the first business to open after Hurricane Ian left Sanibel Island in the dark. This local grocery store offers a dine-in restaurant, the best donuts in the area, and all the supplies you may need while visiting the island. A meat counter, deli, bakery, and souvenirs make this your one-stop shop. If you arrive on the island and realize you forgot some essential items, such as sunscreen, Jerry’s Foods has you covered.
The Sanibel Deli & Coffee Factory was another one of the first businesses to reopen after Hurricane Ian struck. You can dine in or grab your food to go. Dine in with a coffee and breakfast sandwich, and grab a sandwich to go for your lunch. By supporting the businesses that are open, energy is created on the island for others to follow suit. Each day, businesses are one step closer to having everything open again for visitors to enjoy.
Attractions Slowly Open
Attractions are opening back up. Wildlife Refuge Tram tours at J.N. “Ding Darling” are up and running. My tram was not full, though. If you are under the impression that attractions are booked and don’t need your body in a seat, I’m here to tell you otherwise. There were five empty seats on the tram I boarded. Due to the slow numbers of tourists, trams are not running as frequently as they have been. A happy day for all will be when all trams are up and running due to an influx of visitors wanting to take the tram tours.
Reflecting On Sanibel Island And Hurricane Ian
I left Sanibel Island with a sense of hope and sadness. It was hard to see many people struggling to open their businesses, as the visitors to the area have yet to return. For Sanibel Island to be bustling, they need tourists. You may not be able to spend 24 hours on the island, but you can easily spend 15 hours exploring and traveling back to the mainland to lay your head for the night. If you are fortunate to find lodging, grab it during your stay. Your time and money are invaluable to the people of Sanibel Island. A smile, an opportunity to show your support for their island, means a lot during these trying times.