The devastation of coastal Southwest Florida has a very personal effect on me. Although I now live in Tampa, when I graduated from high school in Massachusetts, my family moved to Charlotte County. My father was an editor of newspapers in Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte, and Englewood. In Southwest Florida, much of the news is fishing and boating and beaches.

Our previous family homes escaped with just water damage. Our Charlotte Harbor house was on the bay facing Punta Gorda across the Peace River. We lived on Englewood Beach on Friendship Lane.  But thousands of others did not escape the collapse of their properties as fifteen-foot waves hit the islands and coastal areas.

Ironically this week I was going to put out a paperback version of my A DRIVER’S GUIDE TO THE FLORIDA WEST COAST.  Clearly, I will have to make a lot of revisions, but as a tribute to places like Sanibel and Captiva, I will not just erase them: I will show what was and maybe what is standing.  Without a causeway, it will take several years to rebuild.

I know that some are saying rebuilding is impossible. When it comes to vegetation and water, Mother Nature can be an ally in Florida.  Twice phosphate dikes broke in Polk County killing 106 miles of freshwater fish.  We lived on that waterway and the piles of floating dead fish meant closing the windows and turning off the air conditioners. People said the river was dead, but removing the spills, restocking, and supporting nature returned some resemblance to the past. The same thing happened when Florida let the Kissimmee River return to its natural cleansing curves.

BOCA GRANDE was north of Hurricane Ian’s landing and escaped the highest tides and tidal surge. The fact that the Boca Grande Bridge is standing is quite important.

My wife Barbara’s first painting was Boca Grande Lighthouse before it was moved off the beach.

The 1911 Gasparilla Inn is intact, although a telephone cell tower crashed upon the inn’s Bakery Building. The 1890 Boca Grande lighthouse is still at Boca Grande Pass, but I expect it will need reinforcement like after the direct hit of 2004 Hurricane Charlie.

The Gasparilla Inn may require a little cleaning but it is still standing.

Boca Grande’s beachside mansion owners (Nick Saban, Tucker Carlson, Debo Swiney) probably have a large cleanup to do, but I don’t expect many For Sale signs.  I am concerned about the fishing docks on the bayside – Boca Grande is the tarpon fishing capital of the nation.  I recall fondly the fishing crews with a Baptist preacher as their pitcher coming across vast Charlotte Harbor to the Punta Gorda waterfront in speedboats to play in the softball league I administered.  These people will rebuild the docks and fix their boats.

The hurricane came ashore first at CAYO COSTA STATE PARK reshaping the island’s dimensions and making it almost treeless.   The park has no residents or large facilities so reopening will depend upon dock reconstruction.

SANIBEL ISLAND suffered severe damages and the loss of a long bridge and causeway will seriously slow down any efforts.  The people of Sanibel truly love their island, almost half of which was the bayside DING DARLING REFUGE. Sanibel does not have giant condos, but its strict zoning laws meant the island was filled with delightful one and two-story structures, and many frame beach cottages. Sadly, such buildings do not make good survivors against ten-foot tidal waves and 155-mph winds.

The loss of a huge causeway to Sanibel will be a big obstacle in the island’s restoration.

Air views show the iron lighthouse at the south end standing on vacant land almost beachside.  Larger resorts with newer two-story concrete buildings have roofing, but so many of Sanibel’s hotels were family businesses smaller units surrounding a pool, and the main building.

From the air, CAPTIVA ISLAND, connected to Sanibel on the north end, has more structures with roofs.  The historic TWEEN WATERS INN where Charles Lindbergh once arrived by airplane is standing.  Most of the 300-acre SOUTH SEAS PLANTATION at the northern tip of the island looks intact and its bayside marina in a lagoon looks shockingly good.

Captiva’s South Seas Plantation is the largest island resorts.

I observed the popular BUBBLE ROOM and MUCKY DUCK restaurants with their roofing intact, but the MAD HATTER is a pile of rubble.  On Sanibel, the DOC FORD restaurant owned by author Randy W. White is shockingly still standing, while his sister restaurant on Fort Myers Beach is gone.  My father first interviewed White when he was a charter fishing boat captain.

FORT MYERS BEACH was heavily damaged – you will not recognize the Times Square entertainment district, but much of the island’s southern half is filled with large condos. Expect several years of reconstruction at this location.

PINE ISLAND may be an inner island somewhat protected by Sanibel and Captiva, but it faced a huge tidal surge.   Sadly, the bridge is destroyed and the historic fishing village of MATLACHA lost priceless older structures like the Bridgewater Inn and Bert’s Bar and Grill.   Again, people who come down to the sea to fish and not likely to give up their lifestyle.  They will by hook or crook rebuild.

It may take a few years, but Southwest Florida will rise again.

About floridatraveler

Historian and travel writer M. C. Bob Leonard makes the Sunshine State his home base. Besides serving as content editor for several textbook publishers and as an Emeritus college professor, he moderates the FHIC at
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