by SC Reporter Wendy McMullen
“What did we do right and what can we do better,” was the theme of the third seminar organized by Citizens for a Resilient Future, a newly formed group focusing on rebuilding the Sanibel Community in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian.
The seminar, held May 22 at BIG Arts, included some of the major leaders directing rescue and clearing efforts, who described the particular challenges of Hurricane Ian.
The greatest challenge by far was the collapse of the Sanibel bridge and flooding of the Causeway Islands
“You’re sitting there staring at this missing section of bridge and trying to figure out, okay, what’s next? Emergency plans are great, but what happens when we don’t have a road,” observed Sanibel Fire and Rescue Chief Kevin Barbot.
City Manager Dana Souza pointed out that all hurricanes are different and the ability to pivot is essential. But this becomes especially critical when emergency personnel and equipment can’t get to the scene.
“How do you pivot when the road isn’t there? When all of the emergency responders are on the other side of the shore?” Souza asked rhetorically.
Even getting to the shore to survey the scene from the mainland was a challenge. Fire Chief Kevin Barbot described his attempts to get down Summerlin Road only to be halted by flood waters. City Manager Dana Souza recounted driving down Summerlin Road with City Attorney John Agnew until they met sheets of asphalt road piled on top of one another. They then continued on foot only to find that part of the Causeway bridge had collapsed.
With all the heavy equipment needed to clear roads and launch rescue operations waiting on the other shore, Sanibel Fire and Rescue teams had to use what was available on the island.
“We can’t move vehicles and we knew that was a priority so we got the code for a front end loader that had been left on the island,” recounted Fire Chief Kevin Barbot. “I had never driven a front end loader before, but it worked out. By the end of that morning we had a path and, thank God, Scott and his crews showed up that afternoon to help us.”
“I think they’re kind of the unsung heroes because without their invaluable contribution we don’t have access to streets if we don’t have access to areas to do search and rescue efforts. We can’t do our jobs,” Barbot continued, referring to Scott Krawcuk, interim director of Public Works for the City of Sanibel.
A similar scene was taking place on Captiva.
“We figured out quickly that with the causeway being out, anything we needed to use would have to be already on the island, at least for a while until they could get equipment to us. So through our partnerships with Tween Waters and South Seas Resort, we pretty much hot wired all their stuff and started using it,” recalled Lieutenant Mike Sawicki, Lee County Deputy Sheriff. “We did about five miles of road in two days. And that gave us a response corridor so that we were able to push through with the search and rescue effort. ”
Emergency personnel operating in Lee County determined that the best plan was to move equipment and personnel by boat.
“Return by boat is a key element of our response plan,” commented Benjamin Abes, Director of Lee County’s Emergency Response Team. “Not only because of obstacles on the road on Sanibel but also because several of our communities, such as North Captiva, Cayo Costa, Useppa and Cabbage Cay are not accessible by road.”
One area deemed not so successful was getting residents to evacuate. More than 1,000 people remained on Sanibel during Hurricane Ian, far more than in previous storms. This posed major risks, not only to the non-evacuees themselves, but for emergency personnel trying to save them.
“What do you think is more reasonable: to drive off the island a couple days before the storm or have four police officers come to your home and get you out of a garage where you’re pinned under a car because you slipped in the muck,” asked Sanibel Chief Police Bill Dalton rhetorically.
“Then they’ve got to take you out to the beach and a coastguard helicopter has to come fly you off the island,” he continued, pointing out that those resources were desperately needed elsewhere.
Emergency personnel were also picking up calls from relatives of people who had remained on island begging them to rescue their loved ones.
“I can’t tell you what it feels like and what your stomach goes through when individuals are calling you and they think their family members are not alive,” reported Barbot.
City Manager Dana Souza emphasized that although Hurricane Ian will provide lessons for what happened last year and will influence the planning and responses in the future, no two storms are the same.
“There are many variables that can influence the level of damage we experience from a hurricane. That, in turn, influences the response that federal state and local governments and nonprofit organizations like FISH (Friends in Service Here) have to provide,” he explained.
Citizens for a Resilient Future is proposing three citizen working groups to suggest ways in which islanders can work together to build better:
1) Building: to research and propose best practices in building for a resilient future.
2) Natural Environment: to examine the natural environment and landscaping.
3) Communications: to determine the best ways to broadcast information about sustainability and emergency procedures.
Concerns that have emerged from the two previous seminars held by San-Cap Citizens for a Resilient Future include keeping Sanibel’s small town ambiance and preserving what is unique about Sanibel and discouraging investors from buying properties in order to just rent them. There was also interest in finding ways to come together as a community.
Porter Goss, who was the keynote speaker, in the first seminar, compared this present moment to that time nearly 50 years ago when Sanibel was established as an in incorporated city. He said that citizens came together then and really chose the future that they wanted to create.
Council member John Henshaw was the initial inspiration behind the coalition, which was formed to provide support and information as people rebuild, to support the mental health of the community and find ways of retaining what is good about Sanibel.
Co chairs of the coalition Bob Moore and Carrie Schuman emphasized that their purpose was not to reinvent the wheel or to replicate any work others in the community are already doing, but to amplify the work of member organizations as it relates to resilience and also to identify places where there are gaps where we can be more effective as a community.