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An insider’s story about Hurricane Ian on Sanibel Island
This is a story submitted by Karen Curtin of Coastline Cottage Home Watch (Fort Myers, Florida). Karen was one of our many members who worked tirelessly to represent her clients in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian.
September 29th, 2022, is a day we will not soon forget. We woke up to the most catastrophic and deadly storm that Southwest Florida has ever seen, with Sanibel and Captiva Islands suffering the most disastrous and devastating damage in their history.
Sanibel Island has been our family’s home away from home for nearly five decades. It has been described as blissful, known to many as a sheller’s haven, heaven on earth, or paradise. The Island provided our family with a lifetime of memories including numerous holidays, countless sunsets, and thousands of shared meals, beach days, and endless enjoyable moments.
Over time, Sanibel became a constant in all of our lives—primarily thanks to my in-laws and their choice to permanently relocate from the Boston area 10 years ago. Their relocation eventually inspired my husband, Tom, and I to relocate to Punta Rassa Condominiums where we then decided to build our forever home in Fort Myers. Our relocation also allowed Tom and I to be readily available to help care for his parents, who now permanently reside at Shell Point Retirement Community in Punta Rassa.
September 27th, 2022, started off as any other day in sunny Florida. Tom’s sister, Kelly, and her husband, Billy, were in town visiting from Boston and as usual, everyone (aside from Tom, who had to work) was very eager to get our day started, enjoying the Island and spending time by the water enjoying the sand, shells, and sunshine.
Kelly, Billy, and I convened on the island at my in-laws’ condo at Plantation Village on East Gulf Drive. Their condo is on the third floor of the building and has hosted our entire family on numerous occasions, including holidays, birthdays, and various other celebrations. The back side of the condo faces the Gulf of Mexico and is about 50 yards from Sanibel Beach. It is a part of several core memories for all of us and a place I will remember fondly.
At the condo, we discussed the latest weather reports of the incoming hurricane—we joked about how over the top we thought all the preparation and precautions being taken were for a little rain. To provide some perspective, over the last few decades, we all experienced storms on the Island, and not one of them had come close to being as serious as it was forecasted to be. Essentially, we were unfazed and thought we would be safe, if we were indoors—spoiler alert: we were wrong.
We spent most of the day exploring the Island and stopping in at a few of our favorite shops and restaurants before returning to the condo later in the afternoon. As time went on and the weather reports continued, we convinced ourselves that Hurricane Ian was not going to be as bad as the latest predictions. I even called my son in Tampa to encourage him to come to Sanibel and ride out the storm with us. I thought it would be safer for him—luckily, he turned down my offer and said he would be hunkering down inland in Orlando.
I received a call from Tom, who pleaded with us to vacate the island and stay at his office (which doubled as a living space) in Fort Myers. He thought it was the smartest choice; it was away from the coast and at the very least there was a lifted garage that would keep our cars out of harm’s way. Unfortunately, we ignored his request.
Our decision to stay was made final when we went to a restaurant for dinner, where staff members supported our decision and agreed we would be fine and could successfully wait it out on the island. With our predictions validated and our spirits lifted, we decided to prepare for the storm. At the very least, we thought there was a chance we might lose power, so we collected flashlights, batteries, candles, matches, gallons of water—the essentials. We felt ready for the storm and spent the rest of the night talking about our families, telling stories, and enjoying each other’s company.
On the morning of the 28th we were woken up by the sounds of heavy winds and rain, but there still wasn’t anything to convince us we were in imminent danger—aside from the latest weather report classifying Ian as a Category 4 hurricane.
We remained inside the condo, and it wasn’t until about 2:00 pm when all of our moods started to shift. The winds and rain had started picking up. The winds got up to over 115MPH and the water from the Gulf was quickly rising and headed towards the condo. The water continuously rose for two hours straight, barreling its way down the beach towards us and eventually flooding the first floor of the building. As time went on, the water continued to rise, eventually flooding two more floors of the building. We all gathered by the back windows facing the Gulf and were speechless at what we saw. The water wasn’t stopping, it was getting stronger and stronger by the minute, and was coming straight for us. We looked at one another and we all knew we had made a huge mistake. We were trapped.
This was the moment when I realized Ian might be a greater beast than I had ever imagined or could have ever anticipated. What we thought was just going to be another rainy day turned into a full-fledged nightmare. We lost power, service, and most importantly, all our confidence in this decision. My heart started to race. We had been in contact with the other owners in the building, who gave us combinations to their units in case we needed to get higher, but at this point we started to think the roof may be the only safe place left.
I knew I needed to stay calm, so I kept myself busy. I found some painter’s tape in my mother-in-law’s study and thought I could use it to track the flooding, or at least allow rescuers to know there were people here. I re-checked the flooding every 20 minutes and would tear off pieces to mark how high the water was getting. During what would be my last check, I heard a loud bang and then saw the steel front doors of our building floating like rafts up the staircase towards me—our door remained closed and locked after that.
My niece had been keeping a watchful eye on the storm and was able to get a few final updates to us before the batteries on our phones ran out. She told us at this point (5pm) we were in the eye of the storm, and it was just sitting over Sanibel, moving nine miles per hour—which for a storm this size was very slow!
After what felt like an eternity, the storm started to pass. The water receded, the winds calmed, and the sky started to clear. When we decided it was safe to venture outside, we made our way to the roof. What we saw shocked me to my core.
The Island had been obliterated, in every sense of the word. There was no wildlife to be seen and so many homes, trees, cars, buildings were annihilated. As we looked around and took a few moments to take it all in, I was violently brought back to reality by the sound of a propeller passing above us.
I looked up and saw there were helicopters flying around. We assumed they were looking for those in need of medical attention—we had no idea they were looking for regular people like us.
It wasn’t until the next morning that we were able to escape from my in-laws’ condo and finally make our way out of the building. The three of us moved slowly through the dark hallway and down the soaking-wet staircases. We worked together to push past debris that had fallen from the ceiling and walls, until we made it to the ground level and made our way outside. The destruction was incomprehensible.
All the doors, including the six garages, had been ripped from their hinges and now were scattered in pieces at our feet. Multiple vehicles, cars, and boats were inoperable and in disarray everywhere you looked—there was not a single sign of life, aside from what was left behind.
As we tried to make sense of this ghastly situation, it became increasingly more and more difficult not knowing what our next move was, so that became our priority—get in touch with the mainland. After hours of brainstorming and maneuvering, we were able to get in contact with the police. They told us the causeway (the bridge connecting Sanibel to the mainland) was destroyed in the storm and at this time, there was no way off the Island—all those helicopters made a lot more sense now.
They told us the bridge had collapsed during the storm and that there had been numerous casualties. The officer said people were trying to evacuate and get to safety; they just had waited too long to do so. He told us multiple members of our family had already been in touch with them, gave them our location, and they assured us we would be rescued as soon as possible, but their priority right now was getting enough body bags onto the islands.
After we spoke to the authorities and we were assured they knew where to find us, we all let out a long collective, and figurative, exhale. None of the information we received was settling, but it was encouraging to know we had our loved ones looking and waiting for us.
Two more days went by filled with dread, regret, and utter disbelief about what had happened to us and our home. Emotionally and physically exhausted, we finally decided to try and make the most of being stranded in “paradise” together. In the early evening, Kelly and I went outside, where we swept the front drive and cleared as much of the debris as we could. We found three chairs and a small table and set them up in front of the now pulverized garage area. Billy found Tom’s portable George Foreman grill and a propane tank in one of the old closets and despite our disbelief, it turned on.
Kelly and I gathered supplies from the kitchen, including the last of the hamburger meat and buns, half a bag of potato chips, red solo cups, and a bottle of wine. We brought everything to our makeshift campsite, Billy put the burgers on the grill, I poured the wine, and together we made another collective exhale. Just as we were finishing our burgers and sipping the last of our wine, we were overcome by massive winds and noisy propellers. It was time to go.
In the months since our rescue, I have spoken to hundreds of residents, law enforcement, and even my own clients, all of whom were massively affected by the storm. An unbelievable amount of both full- and part-time residents suffered complete destruction of their homes, leaving them with no place to go for weeks on end, never mind the unimaginable costs of clean-up and the stress and logistics of repairs or rebuilding. The State Troopers I spoke with relayed that we will never know the true death count from Hurricane Ian, but they did tell me that thousands of body bags were delivered to the islands and to the Fort Myers area, and if the country hadn’t responded as aggressively as they did, there would no longer be a Sanibel or Captiva Island.
Aside from the insurmountable amount of stress my experience with Hurricane Ian caused my loved ones, one big positive that came out of all of this was my ability to go above and beyond for my clients. When I first started my Home Watch business, Coastline Cottage, LLC, five years ago, it was more of a hobby than a real commitment. I’d fallen in love with Sanibel and Captiva 30 years ago, so the fact that I now had my own business serving that area and its residents felt like a dream come true.
After the wake of the storm, I was able to focus my energy on those who truly needed my help, and I was able to provide homeowners with real-time updates on their properties, assessments, insurance claims, active and future repairs, etc. I made dozens of phone calls, sent hundreds of photos and emails, and provided as much information and insight as I could, every day, for weeks.
The amount of thanks and tokens of gratitude I have received has been more than enough validation of my involvement and love of the Home Watch industry. I started my business because I knew what it felt like to need someone whom I trusted and whom I could rely on if something ever went wrong. I think my clients experienced that with me after Hurricane Ian, and I will continue to prove the absolute need for this industry and its dedicated members.
My father, a Naval sailor, had once told me, “Most people will tell you that a diamond is the most powerful thing on Earth, but mark my words, the most powerful force on Earth is water; don’t ever take it for granted.” After experiencing Hurricane Ian and its deadly aftermath, I never will again take water for granted.