Hurricane Charley put an end to the debate over Australian pines on Periwinkle Way. (Billy Kirkland photo)

EDITOR'S NOTE: One of a series of personal accounts from the historic landfall of Hurricane Charley on Sanibel and Captiva on Aug. 13, 2004.

In 2004, Steve Greenstein was the president of the Sanibel Captiva Chamber of Commerce and he remembers Hurricane Charley.

The storm was heading north to Tampa where it was supposed to make a right turn, but it changed its mind and headed up the Peace River,” Greenstein recalls. “Along the way, it was close enough to the shore that Sanibel and Captiva suffered serious damage. When it was all over, damage was estimated at more than $1 billion, most of that due to the loss of vegetation.”

If you were here before Charley,” he says, “you wouldn’t have recognized it. At the time Periwinkle Way from about Jerry’s Foods to Tarpon Bay Road had a canopy of Australian pines. Every single one of them came down.”

Prior to that, Greenstein notes, there had been a passionate debate on the island about the Australian pines and whether they were good or bad for the environment and whether they had a shallow root system or not.

Hurricane Charley pretty much put an answer to that,” says Greenstein. “People who first came back to the island after the storm found Periwinkle Way littered with piles of pines that had fallen like pick-up sticks.

All you saw was houses

The same thing happened to Captiva and Captiva Drive where the trees that formed a canopy were destroyed,” he said. “In fact, it used to be from the street you could not see houses from Captiva Drive. After Charley, all you saw was the houses. There was no vegetation left.

The damage on Captiva was mostly to private residences whose owners had the means to repair their properties at their own expense,” says Greenstein. “On Sanibel, there was debate on how to repair Periwinkle Way. Eventually, the Sanibel Partnership was formed and included Sanibel Beautification, the Chamber of Commerce and the City of Sanibel and we developed a master plan and a time line for replanting.

It’s all been replanted down to Tarpon Bay as well as Gulf Drive. With time the idea was it will all grow back, and it’s doing a nice job now, but it was a very passionate and heated debate about what to do.

Filling dump trucks

In terms of the impact from Charley, there was enough vegetation down on Sanibel to fill 100 dump trucks a day for 90 days. The debris was so unwieldy that two burn sites were set up on the island and they took most of the vegetation and burned it. There were fires burning for months,” says Greenstein. The resulting ash was transported off island.

Eighty percent of the Australian pines were destroyed. Of the 4,000 rental units on Sanibel, 1,000 were out of commission after the storm, but mostly short term. The 'Tween Waters Resort was the quickest back in about three weeks even with about a million and a half dollars worth of damage, mostly to their docks and marina. Most of their accommodation units were still on line.”

After the storm, many of the available rental units were filled by workmen sent here by insurance companies or contractors. So for a couple of months after the storm the city was busy filling accommodations.

South Seas took worst hit

Twenty-five business on Sanibel closed permanently as a result of the storm and the worst hit of all was South Seas [Island Resort] . They took the brunt of the storm. They had 600 units and didn’t re-open until March 2006,” says Greenstein. “The estimate was that they had about $180 million in structural damage.”

The Bubble Room on Captiva, left, was closed for three months and the Mucky Duck had 18 inches of sand inside the building. Compounding the challenge for the people and businesses was that Charley appeared on Aug. 13 and on Nov. 1 the toll on the Sanibel Causeway was scheduled to go from $3 to $6.

The chamber undertook a marketing campaign to tell people that the island was open and to counter the toll increase,” says Greenstein. “There were special drawings for meals and gifts and vacation stays. The end result for that year, from January through to April, we had a decent season.”

Greenstein says a lot of the credit for the success goes to Ava Hinojosa who was the Director of Operations at the Chamber. She had the foresight, says Greenstein, to convince him that “we needed to be prepared and have our [computer] servers and equipment available to move off island.”

Island took the bull by the horns

He also has high praise for the island’s administration who set up operations in Bell Tower Shops and directed the recovery from there. Effective communication, says Greenstein, was the key to making the recovery process more orderly. In fact, the City of Sanibel is often called to speak to other communities about disaster preparedness because of how well it was prepared.

Because so many people were calling the chamber, it had a network of people on the island who could check on a business or a residence and report back. And nine times out of 10 the report was that the vegetation was ruined but the structure was fine.

Further preventing more damage was the fact that Sanibel had modified its codes after Hurricane Andrew so newer buildings had better construction, and that helped minimize damage. After Hurricane Charley more structures were brought up to code, renovated and modernized.

Today, Greenstein is the executive vice president of Sanibel Captiva Trust Company.


About the author

Bob McCarthy has written for regional, national, and international magazines, and was the editor for two business publications. He has written numerous video scripts for marketing and public relations, one of which won an industry award.
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