After the Storm
Southwest Florida: Sanibel Island, Under Cover No More
Sunday, November 21, 2004
Periwinkle Way, the main drag on Sanibel Island, is drenched in an ocher wash as day-trippers and residents shop, jockey for primo sunset seats at waterside bars or head for home. It's early November in the Sunshine State, and nowhere seems sunnier than this sand-flecked boulevard a few blocks from the Gulf of Mexico.
But wait. Before Aug. 13 -- Friday the 13th -- the last thing you needed along this strip were sunglasses. X-ray vision glasses, maybe. When Hurricane Charley and its 100-plus-mph winds whipsawed across this island, it destroyed enough vegetation to fill 100 dumptrucks a day for three months. More than 80 percent of the island's Australian pines -- tall, wispy junk trees that provided both shade and privacy for many of Sanibel's 6,000 residents -- are gone.
"There's a passionate debate going on about how to replant this island," says Steve Greenstein, executive director of the Sanibel and Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce. Because of the pines' invasive nature, it's against Florida law to plant the fast-growing tree -- and residents can't decide with what to replace it. "On Sanibel Island, if you want 10 opinions, ask three people."
For now at least, Sanibel and Captiva -- its tiny, even tonier neighbor -- are a voyeur's paradise. Multimillion-dollar homes once obscured by a blanket of vines, pines and palms sit nakedly in yards pocked by monstrous, tendriled tree trunks. On Captiva, where the missing greenery is even more obvious (and where the fabled Bubble Room finally reopened Nov. 18), visitors can get a clear view of artist Robert Rauschenberg's stark-white home and studio, if they know where to look.
While Charley saved its most vicious swipes for the less-touristed communities of Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, about 35 miles to the northeast, the hurricane still did a world of hurt here. Nearly 1,000 of Sanibel's 4,000 rental units are out of commission, though most are expected back by Jan. 7. On Captiva, the 600-room South Seas Resort was pummeled and remains shuttered; MeriStar Hospitality, which owns South Seas as well as five other area resorts, is pumping $180 million in repairs into its properties.
All told, the storm did about $1 billion in damage to Captiva and Sanibel, and more than $7.4 billion statewide.
Fort Myers Beach, just down the coast from Sanibel, is by all appearances in fine form -- and flourishing. "Business in October was amazing," says D.J. Petruccelli, president of the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce. "Restaurants, motels and condos are reporting business almost twice what it was last fall."
While vacationers have returned, he also gives credit to Charley. The flood of contractors and relief workers that poured into the area occupy many of the town's 3,000 rental units (minus the 200 or so motel rooms lost in the storm, including those in a Days Inn and Howard Johnson). Indeed, just about every parking lot has a couple of trucks piled high with ladders and building supplies.
Likewise, teensy Boca Grande -- placid even by Florida standards, it covers the tip of Gasparilla Island due north of Captiva -- has made a quick recovery. Because the town was on the west side of the storm as it unexpectedly veered inland up Charlotte Harbor, it escaped Charley's peak winds.
Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, on the other hand, took a direct hit. Though relatively few of the sun-and-sand set venture to these towns, the area became the face of Charley on the evening news, and these days gawkers continue to creep along in rental cars.
Heaps of debris sit on street corners as if they're waiting for a bus, though the downed trees have, for the most part, been removed. In Punta Gorda, City Hall has a Godzilla-size bite taken out of it, and the harborside Holiday Inn lies in ruins. "NOW OPEN" placards outnumber collapsed roofs and boarded-up fast-food restaurants, though it's not uncommon to see a crowded shop next to one that is not only empty but imploded.
Just outside town on Route 41 -- the area's version of Rockville Pike -- a sign gleefully announces to the world that the Bada Bing adult video store reopened for business Nov. 3.