A cement-like mixture of sand, muck and oil cloaks everything on Sanibel Island, one of two barrier islands renowned for their sandy beaches and seashells where Hurricane Ian particularly focused its fury.
The mixture smeared across Carolyn Bradbury Schwartz’s face and filled her boots as she bicycled through the hurricane’s destruction, stopping every few minutes to find a stick and poke the sludge out of her bike’s fenders.
First responders ferried her off the island the day after the Category 4 storm nearly leveled her home of nine years, but she sneaked back — three days in a row — to return to the island, which had been severed into two: the rescued and the unreachable.
This is what she and others saw, some of the earliest eyewitness reports from the small island of about 6,000 that remains unreachable by vehicle. Florida is rebuilding its only connecting bridge, which Gov. Ron DeSantis said this week may happen by the end of October. The storm led to the causeway’s collapse, severing Sanibel from the mainland and frustrating rescue and recovery efforts.
Travel by air and water remain the only escape route for residents stranded on the island, frequented by celebrities and politicians including Taylor Swift and former Vice President Mike Pence.
The island’s iconic lighthouse remains standing, but other staples are gone. Entire resorts are gone, and wildlife has retreated. Hurricane Ian was on another level than previous storms, including Hurricane Charley in 2004.
“Hurricane Charley came through and hit us for two hours, and then you were outside picking up palm fronds as butterflies flew past,” said Schwartz, 44. “This is a whole other level.”
In interviews, Schwartz said she searched for life, pedaling along unrecognizable paths and dodging remnants of the island’s once charming homes. Muted wood planks, once vibrant beach cottages, dammed brown rivers that now run over the island’s main roadways. Those streets would have been gridlocked by bands of nature-loving tourists in a few months.
The forests of mangroves and sea oats she once fell in love with had turned brown and crisp after storm surges drowned the island in salt water.
“Just another day in paradise,” a man on a bicycle told her.
The close-knit community of about 6,000 on Sanibel has coped the best way islanders know how: with humor and hope, Schwartz said. Through the wreckage, a wooden post with “Love” spelled in green paint remains.
“There’s weird little signs like that, you know, that things will come back,” she said. “Everybody either knows each other or of each other, so people were doing whatever they could to help.”
Recent search and rescue efforts suggest about 1,000 people stayed on the island through the hurricane, said Sanibel City Council member Scott Crater. More than 500 people have been transported to Fort Myers this week, he said.
“I’ll never stay again,” Schwartz said. “I’m a believer now.”
Schwartz and her fiance thought they were prepared. They bought cases of water and moved their cars to garages across different properties on the island. They took their three dogs — Beauregard, Bentley and Geordie — outside as Ian’s outer bands passed overhead. They knew the wind and rain would eventually become too much to brave outside.
As Schwartz chased her dogs across the yard around noon, she turned to look down her driveway.
Oh my god, she thought.
She lived a half mile inland, and a wave was barreling toward her.
Schwartz bolted inside to save what she could: her jewelry box, the ashes of a former pet dog, her phone. She stationed herself at the upper porch’s French doors — the only non-hurricane impact panes.
“Come on, girl, you can hang in there,” she told her house as she prayed for the storm to stop. The wind was relentless. She could feel the house flexing and moving under the storm’s pressure.
“We were just getting punched,” she said. “It just never left.”
Waves breaking against her front door delivered a wayward hot tub. It floated past just below their 10-foot basketball hoop. Currents carried cars from driveways into neighbor’s living rooms, kitchens or bedrooms. As she walked streets after the surge receded, rooms were indistinguishable piles of rubble. Newer homes, built under modern construction codes, held up but any older or one-story homes were badly damaged or destroyed.
She ran into other survivors — some stepping barefoot over power lines, branches and shards of glass — and collected their phone numbers. She found phone service at the edge of the collapsed causeway and made calls to loved ones, both her own and those of strangers.
Calls were answered with disbelief, then tears. Many watched weather updates hundreds of miles away and went more than 24 hours without knowing whether their family members survived.
“I don’t know why my mom stayed on the island,” said Alexandra Iglesias, Schwartz’s 21-year-old daughter. “We’re extremely confused.”
Jerry’s Shopping Center, a plaza famous for its six parrots in cages lining the entrance, lost its mascots in the storm, said Isabella Sbarra, 20, who lost contact with her mom and sister. Mia, the parrot stationed outside Sbarra’s mother’s shop, was a best friend to her since she was 11.
“All of this is horrible, but for some reason that really just broke my heart,” she said.
Sbarra heard the roof peel off before a loud crash cut the call with her mom. Her 16-year-old sister pleaded: “I want to go home, I want to go home, I want to go home.” Then the line went dead. The next 24 hours, Sbarra said, were filled with lots of prayer.
“She’s a tough cookie, but I can’t even imagine what she’s thinking,” Sbarra said. “Everything she has ever known was destroyed, and same here.”
Schwartz returned to the island’s ruins on a private boat tied to a friend’s secluded dock — out of sight from authorities. She dragged a wheelbarrow over fallen branches to her house, where she loaded her own bird, her computer charger and her dog’s ashes before trekking back.
On her last visit, she saw signs of a return to normalcy.
“There were iguanas, because you can’t kill those things, but the birds are starting to come back, and coyotes are howling somewhere in the distance.”
Julia Coin reporting; produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at [email protected]. You can donate to support our students here.