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Hurricane Ian: Return of tourism to Sanibel Island

  • Ian killed nearly 150 people, caused more than $110 billion in damage
  • Resident: The relentless rebuild on Sanibel Island is just getting started
  • The island relies heavily on tourism for its economy

SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla. (NewsNation) — It has been a year since Hurricane Ian slammed Florida’s southwest coast, and while the rest of the world went back to normal, some residents — like those living on Sanibel Island — are still picking up the pieces.

The powerful Category 5 hurricane killed nearly 150 people and caused more than $110 billion in damage, making it the third costliest natural disaster in American history behind hurricanes Harvey and Katrina.

Families and communities were changed forever.

On Sanibel Island, a shell of its former self remains and tourism is almost nonexistent. Yet, members of the community have told NewsNation crews they remain hopeful and are looking for better days ahead.

“We got engaged on this island, we got married on this island and we raised our kids on this island,” John Lai, the president and CEO of Sanibel and Captiva Chamber of Commerce, said.

In the past year, Lai said they have felt every emotion possible, from anger to sorrow to grief and a sense of loss.

It’s been anything but a walk on the beach, and for families in Ian’s path, it still feels like the storm hit yesterday.

While the rescues are over, the relentless rebuild is just getting started. And that includes tourism — the island’s lifeline has been on life support.

“We are just over 10% for Sanibel and Captiva, but on Sanibel, it’s only about 4% that is back online,” Lai said.

Before Ian, there were roughly 2,600 short-term rentals. Now, a year later, there are only about 200. That means the number of visitors is still way down, translating into a giant financial loss for the islands.

“In a tourism-driven economy, once again, hotels are the key,” Lai said.

Sanibel Island Beach Resort was one of the first places to open its doors since the storm. The general manager, Marshall McCormick, explained the building had to be completely gutted from storm damage.

“It was a lot of work and progress, but as for us being one of the few that are open now it’s pretty amazing,” McCormick said.

The resort had managed to fully renovate 30 rooms in just a year.

Greg and Susan Whittaker, guests staying at the resort, said that everyone on the beach had asked them if they were staying at Sanibel Island Beach Resort. And when they tell them yes, they usually thank them for it.

And while it’s been a “brutal year,” Lai said they are hopeful for the future.

Hurricane Ian

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