Early footage of Hurricane Ian was exactly the same as early footage of any hurricane hitting Florida. Grey sleet. Palm trees bent double. Rubbish bowling along. Puddles becoming a flood.
One time-lapse sequence from traffic cameras on one of the islands showed all of these images and gave no idea of the actual impact. Because, no matter how good Florida is at managing the consequences of tropical storms, the consequences for Sanibel, Captiva and Pine Island will be dire.
Four days ago, clever residents left. They boarded up their windows, packed clothes, food, water and pets in their car and followed the evacuation route in a long winding procession. They headed to other parts of Florida – the ones not in the path of the hurricane – to hotels and, roughly 60% of them – to local authority shelters in Fort Myers, on the mainland.
Then the mandatory evacuation started. Alerts on phones. Notices on websites. And then the cops circulating throughout the islands with megaphones, telling everyone to get out. Now. And making no bones of the possible upshot of not obeying orders.
Residents will have heard that if, in the worst of the hurricane, they had a heart attack, had a tree fall on them or get cut by shrapnel, they would be on their own. No first responders. No medics. No ambulances. Nothing.
The result of those warnings, and the experience of Hurricane Charley in 2004, means that the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants and tourists will have left the islands long before the real threat manifested itself.
Here is a time-lapse of the #StormSurge coming in on Sanibel Island, #Florida caught on a live traffic cam. This was only 30mins condensed down, it deteriorated quickly. 😬 #HurricaneIan #Hurricane #Ian pic.twitter.com/JKuNROvMm4— BirdingPeepWx (@BirdingPeepWx) September 28, 2022
But that won’t have solved everybody’s problems. Fort Myers Beach, normally a long stretch of golden beaches backed by mid-level hotels, is currently thigh-deep in floodwaters. The relatively new causeway to Sanibel and Captiva, on pictures coming from the mainland, gives the appearance of being breached. If that’s the case, the two islands are cut off and will be for at least a week and probably longer.
When the winds die down, the instinct of many of those in the mainland shelters will be to breathe a sigh of relief, get into their cars and plough through the flooded roads of Fort Myers towards the islands. No point. Should they get as far as the causeway, (which is unlikely) they’ll be turned away by army and police officers. If they try to make it by sea, they’ll be turned away by armed coast guard officers.
Nobody will be able to get news because media won’t be able to deliver them and would have no signal with which to send any footage.
The first people allowed to access the islands will be army, police and guys with chainsaws. Army to prevent looting. Police to check on the welfare of people who willfully stayed put. The guys with the chainsaws will be on site because thousands of trees will have come down, the vast majority of them falling across and obstructing the roads through the islands.
The chainsaw operators will cut up those fallen trees. Last time, in 2004, trucks took them out of the islands. This time, if the causeway is down, neither trucks nor cars will cross. Everybody who gets on to the islands will have to be brought over by boat, including sanitation services lads surveying what happens when floodwaters cover and invade over-ground septic tanks and other utility crews seeking to restore power.
Then will come the teams pulling out carpets, drapes and soft furnishings drowned in floodwater. Stinking rolls of fabric will pile up beside houses for garbage collection, (which won’t happen if the causeway has been breached) and that’s not counting the chest freezer contents. Four or more days without power in the tropics mean that every freezer ends up storing a suppurating melting mass of putrefied food.
All this work has to be done in high temperatures, with mandatory stand-downs to re-hydrate every 20 minutes from water bottles stuck into the trunks of any palm trees still standing. It also has to be done with a watchful eye on wildlife – an alligator swept inland by a storm surge is unlikely to be thinking positively.
In 2004, residents were eventually issued colour-coded tickets indicating their priority within the numbers of evacuees, with those facilitating the resumption of normality coming first: fire-fighters, nurses, electricians, cleaners and retail workers. What happens this time around is anybody’s guess.
Many residents will have their homes inspected before they go back into them, and their reported condition may mean they can’t go back in. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will be inspecting the damage and announcing whatever help they can provide.
But it can be surmised, based on Hurricane Charley, that countless island homes will be boarded up or have bright blue roof coverings for months to come. Insurance assessors will be moving in to assess what they’re going to pay for the damage, and by how much they will raise premiums for people who make the choice to continue to live in the path of tropical storms.
Paradise turned into hell by just one of those storms…
- Terry Prone has a property on Sanibel.