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?
Many environmentalists believe that inhabited barrier islands are candidates for “managed retreat,” which Jean Flemma, the director of the Ocean Defense Initiative and a co-founder of the coastal-city think tank Urban Ocean Lab, defined for me as “a purposeful and planned voluntary community relocation—hopefully before a disaster—that comes with government support.” It’s a complicated and controversial process that can take years, as it has in Isle de Jean Charles, on the coast of Louisiana, and in the village of Newtok, on the southwest coast of Alaska. (Both places are disappearing, owing to rising sea levels.) Local governments, typically using federal money, have also offered financial incentives for individuals to voluntarily leave areas prone to devastation by natural disasters; in 2015, the Army Corps of Engineers began insisting that, in addition to offering buyouts, the government must begin seizing property when necessary. (Most places have resisted this approach, but a few, the Times reported in 2020, have adopted it.) Earlier this month, the Biden Administration announced the first grants in a new relocation program that will assist Indigenous communities living in places threatened by climate change.
Federal money helps, but the greater challenge is local. “After a hurricane, the first response of any local politician is ‘We’re gonna rebuild,’ ” Flemma told me. “Nobody wants to be the local decision-maker to say, ‘Maybe we should think about whether rebuilding is even a good idea?’ ” I asked Flemma about Sanibel. “It doesn’t make sense to rebuild in areas where we know sea level is rising and more severe storms are coming due to climate change,” she said.
None of the Sanibel residents I spoke to mentioned climate change. (According to a report in the Washington Post, none of the public officials who spoke at a hurricane seminar held on Sanibel in May mentioned it, either.) Brooks, the full-time Sanibel resident, described himself to me as a conservationist; he said that he didn’t like the term “environmentalist.” When I asked him about managed retreat, he said he’d never heard the term before, and he didn’t seem to care for it. “Charles,” he said, “I think that, in this world, as you begin to age, some of us are willing to live with the issues we’ve had with a hurricane like this in order to enjoy the life style we had before the hurricane and hope to return to, even if it’s not immediate.” He and Nancy are going to stay.
Two weeks after Ian, I got in a motorboat piloted by a teen-aged Sanibel resident named Jackson Sprecher, who was operating a makeshift ferry service to the island in an effort to bring in some money for his family. His parents, John and Milissa, had moved into a house on my grandparents’ old street in 2004. Their home stood on eight-foot stilts, but the storm surge went higher than that; the living area was drenched, and wind ripped the roof off the place. They’ll probably need to tear the house down and build again, if they can afford it. The Federal Emergency Management Agency periodically publishes maps of flood-prone areas, which are used with predictive modelling to calculate the required height of the lowest living space, in order for a dwelling to qualify for the federal flood-insurance program. On Sanibel, that height has lately averaged around twelve feet. According to fema’s “fifty-per-cent rule,” now in effect on the island, if the cost of repairing a building exceeds half of its market value, the building must be brought up to current flood-protection standards.
I got a spot on Jackson’s boat thanks to a friend of the Sprechers’ named Scott Crater, a chatty dermatologist in his fifties who was elected to Sanibel’s city council last year. Crater has lived on the island with his wife, Dana, and their three kids since 2008. He said that if I helped him tear down some drywall he’d show me around. Nothing about the crossing to Sanibel—light breeze, smooth water, the distant outlines of seemingly undisturbed homes and buildings on the passing shores—suggested what we’d find when we disembarked at a small marina where boats were piled up at strange angles alongside heaps of household debris. A group of day laborers sat waiting for work. “I’ll take ten of you,” a man in a truck shouted to them.
We walked to Crater’s home, past telephone poles snapped in half and a dumpster stuck high in a tree. “There’s our basketball goal,” Crater said at one point, gesturing at a broken hoop lying on its side on the wrong end of his block. As we approached his house, I noticed a Trump doll sitting sentry-like at the bottom of the steps. “I wanted it to look like a crazy person lived here,” Crater told me. Their house was stilted thirteen feet above sea level. But, like most residents with stilted homes, they had walled in their ground level, and it had become a repository for all kinds of things—tools, wedding albums, a gym for their youngest son—that were now gone.
Insurance wasn’t likely to be of much help, Crater said, but he and his wife planned to rebuild. We tore down drywall together, then set out on a bicycle ride around the eastern half of the island. Everywhere we went, fire alarms pinged and chainsaws buzzed. And, around each bend, we found someone Crater knew.
A deeply tanned man in a backward baseball hat and aviator sunglasses was bicycling toward Periwinkle Way, the island’s main drag. He introduced himself as Doug Congress, a C.P.A. and former vice-mayor of Sanibel who has lived mostly on the island since his teens. Like about a thousand other Sanibel residents, Congress and his wife, Melissa, remained on the island during the storm. “I mean, my home is stilted fifteen feet above sea level,” he said. “I have impact glass, one-eighty-five-rated. I’ve got a metal roof that’s only six years old.” He’d lived on the island for nearly thirty years, and evacuating had always turned out to be unnecessary in the past.
At one point during the storm, it looked like Congress’s home might go under. “My wife said, ‘You know what, if we’re gonna die, we’re not dying in that attic,’ ” he recalled. They took six five-gallon water bottles, sealed them up, and wrapped them around a wooden bench. They ended up not needing the raft, but Congress has kept it. “Because I’m gonna come back and put it in the ocean and see if it would have worked,” he told me.
Congress is a car enthusiast, and one of his prize automobiles was ruined by the storm. He asked Crater for advice on how he could get it properly appraised, before explaining to me that this was really the least of his problems. I asked him what he thought the future held for the island. “You build back, I guess,” he said. At the very least, he added, he had to get his house into decent enough shape to rent or sell. But he was worried about what others would do—if a lot of people left, Sanibel wouldn’t be the same. And he worried that it could go bankrupt. “Mel wants to move to the mountains,” he said. “But we’ll see.”
“This is the future of Sanibel,” Crater said, stopping his bike a few minutes down the road and pointing to a house on our left. It was a medium-sized home with a metal roof, Hardie-plank siding, and hurricane-rated windows. It sat on ten-foot stilts. The area beneath the home had not been walled in. “This isn’t rocket science,” Crater went on. “It’s building to code, following it strictly. We can coexist with the ocean.” He guessed that about one per cent of Sanibel’s homes currently fit this model.
Two men approached on foot as we headed around the next bend, past a home that had floated off its foundation. “I’m flood-adjusting,” Gage Crowder, the younger of the two, told me. Crowder, an insurance man, lives in Texas, and saw things after Hurricane Harvey inundated the Houston area, but said the damage from Ian in Fort Myers was the worst he’d ever seen. I asked his colleague about rebuilding on Sanibel. “The best practice is to elevate it,” he said, referring to the houses on stilts, “but they’re always gonna box them in. They want to use the space. These people got money.”
“They got ‘screw-you money,’ ” Crowder said. “Corvettes, Stingrays, sports cars—they’re all around here in some of these houses.”
Crater and I pedalled until we happened upon two police officers who’d just come from the neighborhood where my grandparents used to live. I asked the officers how it looked; they shook their heads. As we spoke, a golf cart approached carrying a woman in leggings and muck boots—it was Sanibel’s mayor, Holly Smith. “I literally thought it could have been someone looting,” she said, referring to Crater and me. Smith, who has held various civic positions on Sanibel for more than a decade, was almost impossibly upbeat. “How far we’ve come is extraordinary,” she said, adding that the important thing was to build “the Sanibel that everybody wants to come back to.” She added, “Will there be tweaks? There might need to be.”
The insurance situation was going to make things harder, she said. Most of the damage done to homes was caused by flooding, and federal law caps flood coverage at a quarter million dollars. Many homes sustained more than that, and separate wind-insurance policies likely wouldn’t help. Meanwhile, insurance companies in Florida are fighting other battles. “Various statutes have created opportunities for bad actors to file a lot of abusive litigation,” Chris Heidrick, the owner of an island insurance agency, told me. Many of the companies that insure insurance companies—reinsurers, they’re called—have pulled out of Florida, Heidrick said, and seven private insurers in the state declared insolvency in the months prior to Ian. Much of the cost of rebuilding on Sanibel would likely fall to the people who lost their property.
When we spoke, Heidrick thought it’d take five to ten years before Sanibel was back to what it was. “But I honestly believe that it’s so beautiful it’ll come back, and people will still want to live in warm climates, and be able to swim and fish in beautiful water.” This was a common refrain. “There might be some new people that come in,” he said.