Sanibel Island residents on Wednesday were crossing the causeway for the first time since Hurricane Ian damaged the only road onto the popular Gulf Coast destination.
“The causeway is our lifeline, and without it we have no opportunity to get back to the island, to get back to our homes,” said longtime resident Troy Thompson, who manages the Lazy Flamingo restaurants. “We’ve been stranded in town for three weeks now and it means everything to get back.”
The causeway, which comprises three bridges and road over two tiny man-made islands, opened weeks earlier than first predicted and two days earlier than recent forecasts.
“We had an ambitious agenda and ambitious roadmap to get this done,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a news conference in Fort Myers, noting 100 crews worked for some 36,000 work hours on the causeway.
At least five sections of the causeway, which connects Sanibel to the mainland, were washed away by Hurricane Ian, Lee County officials said.
Florida Transportation Department Secretary Jared Perdue said the bridges were mostly undamaged but some “portions of the causeway that connect bridge structures had been washed away.”
“A project like this, under normal circumstances, could take months. However, FDOT, along with our law enforcement partners at the Florida Highway Patrol, Lee County and Florida Department of Emergency Management made use of strategic and innovative techniques to rebuild the causeways quickly,” Perdue said.
But De Santis said the current repairs are a temporary fix. “We are going to continue to work with the county on plans for permanent repairs to the causeway… but we’re happy to be able to take the lead on the restoration,” he said.
Two weeks ago, island residents were allowed to visit Sanibel by boat for the first time since the Category 4 storm made landfall September 29. Hurricane Ian killed at least 115 people in Florida, 55 in Lee County, according to state officials.
Julie Emig – who returned to Sanibel with her wife, Vicki Paskaly, on October 5 – told CNN that day they couldn’t believe the destruction.
“It’s incomprehensible that a storm, a hurricane, can wipe us all out like this in just a few hours,” she said.
Until Wednesday, only a one-time caravan of hundreds of utility trucks had been allowed over the causeway.
About 25% of Sanibel Island should have power back this week, while northern parts of neighboring Captiva Island may not get power restored until November, the governor said.
Power to a school, a water plant and fire stations could be back by Thursday, Lee County Electric Cooperative said Saturday on its website.
Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith told CNN affiliate WBBH returning residents should come with reasonable expectations.
“We still do not have water. We don’t have sewer. We don’t have power,” the mayor said. “So, to think that you can come and live here as you normally did before is really a topic that I want people to be very cautious of.”
A curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. remains in effect for the island.