On Thursday night, dozens of people remained stranded, according to Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith. At least five sections of the Sanibel Causeway – which connects the barrier islands, including Sanibel and Captiva, to the mainland – were washed away by the storm, Lee County officials said. (Lee County includes Fort Myers in addition to Sanibel and Captiva islands and Cape Coral.)
Roughly 200 households did not evacuate ahead of the storm, the mayor said. Twelve people were rescued off the island with injuries and about 40 people were rescued without injuries, the mayor told CNN. Sanibel City Manager Dana Souza reported the two fatalities.
When asked later on CNN if the city is currently livable, the mayor said, “Frankly, no.”
Kim Carman was among those who left ahead of the storm. She has been staying in Fort Myers since, and doesn’t expect to be back on Sanibel Island – where she was preparing to move into a new condo in a matter of days – for several weeks.
“It’s total devastation. I never dreamed I’d see anything like this in my lifetime. Especially on Sanibel,” Carman told CNN’s Erin Burnett Thursday night. “You look at it and it does not look real, it is just so overwhelming.”
“I don’t think any of us have totally processed it yet,” she said, adding many people are now facing “total financial devastation” after losing everything in the storm.
Because of the severed causeway, rescue teams were being transported by helicopter to the islands, where they went door-to-door checking on residents, Florida’s State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Thursday evening. Florida’s National Guard was assisting in those transportation efforts, Patronis added.
An estimated 6,400 people lived in the City of Sanibel as of April 2021, per the US Census Bureau. The islands are home to a number of hotels and resorts, as their beaches draw a significant amount of tourists each year.
A 2017 City of Sanibel count measured annual bridge traffic over the causeway at over 3 million vehicles.
Search and rescue operations underway
Lee County officials were assessing damage Thursday and also conducting search and rescue operations, Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais said in a Thursday afternoon briefing.
Federal urban search and rescue teams were deployed from across the country and expected in the county Thursday and into the early Friday hours, and were “prepared to go to work right away,” he added.
All 15 shelters in the county that opened prior to the storm’s arrival remained open, Desjarlais said, adding that by late Wednesday, roughly 4,000 people were there.
“Given the amount of damage in the community, I think it’s reasonable to expect that those shelters will begin to fill up a little more. We have space for about 40,000 people,” the county manager added.
A boil water order was in place countywide, he said. Bridge inspections were also underway across the county, with help from engineers at the Florida Department of Transportation. Officials hope all bridges will be inspected by Friday, Desjarlais said.
“In the meantime, avoid them if you can,” he said. “When you think about the failures that have taken place on the Sanibel Causeway and the bridges on the way to Pine Island, I would never have thought that those bridges would fail the way they have, so exercise an awful lot of caution.”
There was also “extensive damage to the buildings,” on Sanibel Island, he said, and all bridges to Pine Island have also failed, so there is no way to travel there by vehicle.
“I can tell you that in all these years I have not seen damage to Lee County from a storm like this. When you take a look at the barrier islands, particularly from the air, it’s very clear to see where the storm came onshore,” Desjarlais said in Thursday’s briefing.
‘Biblical storm surge’
Sanibel was devastated, Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a news conference Thursday afternoon, adding the area was hit with a “biblical storm surge.”
“It washed away roads, it washed away structures that were not new and could withstand that,” he said, adding that while many people evacuated, some people had been brought off the island safely. Air operations continue, the governor said, since the area is inaccessible by ground.
The causeway will be rebuilt, DeSantis said. “But that’s not something that will happen overnight.”
Residents were urged to stay inside to avoid injuries and to allow first responders to assess the damage, Lee County officials said Thursday.