Wednesday was something of a D-Day for Sanibel Island in southwest Florida, as throngs of captains of charter boats and private vessels sailed into San Carlos Bay from nearby Fort Myers to understand the devastation of Hurricane Ian for the first time. Nothing good awaited their arrival, but a random bike and hot tub played a key role in the excursion.
This revelation is best exemplified by a visit from Sanibel Island Golf Club pro golfer Gene Taylor. Taylor, also a local realtor, evacuated his home and the island for Fort Myers early last week to brave the storm, which made landfall at dawn on September 28 and brought 150 mph winds and a 10 foot storm surge.
A week later, with the Sanibel causeway collapsing prohibiting vehicular traffic in either direction, Taylor took a ride with a charter boat captain. Overhead, the steady roar of Chinook helicopters lingered as they made emergency moves from the mainland to various locations. President Joe Biden toured the area Wednesday with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and flew over Sanibel. “You can see a lot of damage from the air,” Biden said.
Taylor’s boat ride moored at one of the beaches. It was a startling sight as the water infested surroundings and fallen trees made it impossible to find the usual landmarks. The Sanibel Lighthouse at the east end was still standing, but the surrounding historic buildings were gone. On the shore, tangled among the remaining foliage was an abandoned bicycle, which Taylor commandeered to better take the island.
What Taylor saw on his bike trip was shocking, “like a war zone,” he says. He cycled to the Sanibel Island Golf Club and hiked the cart paths. When he walked the Bermudagrass fairways, they were “muddy and slippery” due to saltwater and mud infestation from the storm surges.
Taylor cycled 1 mile to her one-story house on Periwinkle Way. He found it filled with 7 feet of water and mud. He met with the course owner and superintendent and returned to Fort Myers with them, as visitors are currently only allowed on the island from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. He will return several times over the coming weeks and months.
“I found this mangled bike in the trees and that should have been a sign,” Taylor said, as he drove around dusk on Wednesday. “Today was a double whammy for me. You lose your house and you lose your livelihood – just like that. My house looked like someone picked it up, shook it and l had rested.”
The suddenly isolated barrier island – 12 miles long and 3 miles wide – earns the travel brand, “Naturally, You’ll Love It Here.” The island has an unusual east-west orientation and is shaped like a C.
Among the growing impact on lives, buildings and jobs in Southwest Florida (more than 100 reported Florida deaths and estimates of billions of dollars in damage) and, in particular, Lee County, are the three golf courses – two semi-private and one private – that call Sanibel Island home. The courses run through the midst of numerous waterways, flora and fauna that give them all Audubon certification.
Sanibel Island Golf Club is the oldest course on the island, built on the southeast side in 1976 by Truman Wilson and Bill Dietsch. The Dunes Golf and Tennis Club, a 1985 design by Mark McCumber, was built just to the right of the causeway that connects Sanibel Island. Both are short semi-private facilities dominated by water. The private Sanctuary Golf Club, a design by Arthur Hills in 1992, is located on the northwest end adjoining the JN “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
“I’ve been in Florida for 20 years and I’ve been through a lot of these storms, but this was the first one where water was the main story instead of wind,” says Geoff Lofstead, executive director of the southern section of Florida of the PGA of America. “The flood created a lot of damage like I’ve never seen. Anything west of US 41 from Bonita Springs and north is in a pretty tight spot.
“We launched a phone campaign last Friday, primarily for classes in Collier, Lee and Charlotte counties. I know we’ve spoken to up to 12 PGA professionals – at this point – who have been flooded out of their homes. I’ve never seen PGA members crumble like I’ve had in the past few days.”
The powerful storm had enough wind to tear the net surrounding the Fort. Topgolf’s Myers location, leaving the facility closed and looking like a large animal has escaped its confines. Other courses in the storm’s path, from southwest Florida to Daytona Beach, are still trying to get their feet under them, even though the damage is only 6 to 10 inches of rain and lingering debris. .
With Sanctuary officials unavailable and phone lines down, damage to the course is almost certain. Dunes general manager Brian Kautz was also visiting Sanibel for the first time on Wednesday. His family evacuated to Ft. Lauderdale before returning home to Ft. Myers earlier this week. He boarded the boat of Chris Pais, retired and part-time professional.
“Our golf course is 90-95% brown because Bermuda grass does not tolerate salt water at all,” Kautz says. “Went out on the course when I got there and a chopper landed in our first fairway, which they’re using as an airstrip to get supplies and set up a fire station. I found sets rental clubs down the street from the cart barn.”
There is, however, good news. Officials hope that the rapid repair of part of the roadway will allow some vehicle traffic by the end of October. Course evaluations will take longer to consider. The PGA of America has deployed relief efforts to help PGA professionals and facilities and other efforts are just beginning.
“Sanibel is a very tight-knit community,” says Kautz. “For so many people on Wednesday it felt like the hurricane happened yesterday.”
A hopeful attitude prevails, no greater than what Taylor and Kautz and their teams have developed.
Taylor told the story of a family with four children who had to be taken from the island right after the storm to a shelter in Tampa. They had lost everything but aimed to come back and rebuild “because the community was there for us,” Taylor says.
In the days following the storm, someone took a picture of the 18th green on the island on The Dunes course. Sitting on the green was a hot tub, from who knows where. As Kautz saw the devastation Wednesday morning, he gathered his staff and they posed for a quick photo around the hot tub.
“The first thing I said to the staff on Tuesday night was that we’re going to take a picture with this hot tub,” Kautz said. “Who knows, it could be a novelty on our 18th hole. We all need to have a sense of humor and hope. After all, you can’t beat Mother Nature.