The Price of Living In Paradise

Hurricane Ian played out like reality TV this past week and while painful to watch, it was impossible to turn away. Instead of securing outdoor furniture, closing shutters, and gathering supplies, like we did in 2017, this time, we were glued to our television sets. We knew this would be a West Coast storm (we live on the East side of Florida) but we didn’t know who would be directly affected until time ran out. Floridians know the drill – be prepared. A small wobble of a storm this size can make all the difference between narrow escape and complete decimation. There was never a ‘good’ outcome available in the path of Ian, but there was a ‘worst case scenario.’ Unfortunately, that is the one that played out.

Ian hit during daylight hours and the Weather Channel gave us a play-by-play throughout the duration of the storm. This was a very large, slow storm that pushed unimaginable amounts of water onshore from the gulf, along with record rainfall and battering winds. Add a few tornadoes to the mix and this was a storm for the record books.

Much of the destruction happened to barrier islands which are low-lying and extremely vulnerable to storm surges. In some cases, entire islands were washed over by gulf waters, bridges were destroyed, and homes were lifted from their foundations. Many residents who chose not to evacuate were left stranded. The tales of survival have been horrific, the death toll astounding.

The purple color indicates where the strongest winds hit, followed by red and then yellow. As storms go, this one will be labeled a water event, as opposed to a wind event. While the winds were in excess of 140mph at landfall and caused severe damage, the water was catastrophic.

With the exception of a small section of the Panhandle (Pensacola, Destin, Miramar, Panama City, Mexico Beach) Ian’s winds battered our entire state. It is a small, but welcome irony that this region (Mexico Beach in particular) was spared as it is nearing a 60% recovery source since being destroyed by hurricane Michael four years ago.

What you cannot comprehend from the image above is the vulnerability of a series of barrier islands just off the West Coast where Ian arrived. Several of them are now cut off from the mainland as roads and bridges have been washed away. As of today, search and rescue missions have recovered hundreds of survivors. Statewide, loss of life is currently at 46 and expected to go higher as water recedes and recovery continues.

From a stationary camera mounted six feet off the ground, (courtesy of the Weather Channel) we watched in real-time as the Gulf spilled into the streets of Ft. Myers Beach. It was unprecedented coverage of what happens during a storm surge. In just a matter of hours, the camera was completely submerged. The horrific visual was enough for us to understand that all of the barrier islands to the west of Ft. Myers Beach would be devastated. We know them well, and our hearts sank with each passing hour.

Florida has ten distinct coasts, many of which I have written about in previous posts. This area is considered the Lee Island Coast and gets its name from the association of numerous barrier islands within Lee county. The map below provides a better understanding of the configuration of small islands west of Fort Myers. If you look at the map closely, you will see the access roads and bridges to these islands. Those access roads no longer exist.

At twelve miles long and three miles wide, Sanibel Island is a popular tourist destination and winter residence for many. The census shows over 6,000 residents, but it is estimated that only about 3,000 of them are full-time. During the season, (December to May) the island reaches a population of 30,000. More than 60% of the island is designated conservation land. There are no high-rise buildings, chain stores, or even intersection lights distracting from its natural beauty. We have visited there many times and have fond memories of riding the 25 miles of bike trails, hiking in the nature preserve, and strolling the world-famous, shell-covered beaches.

Pine Island, which is closer to the mainland and seventeen miles long, is mostly populated with full-time residents. According to this source, dwellings are 90% owner occupied and the average age is 62. It has the rustic charm of a time gone by, and the people who live there cherish their way of life. We love the colorful artist residences and shops that are iconic to Matlacha, and the road leading onto Pine Island. The island was unique and had a personality that most would describe as quirky. Two years ago we drove the length of the island and I remember noticing low-lying areas and bogs of standing water on the north end. Some of the houses were elevated, but many were not. I couldn’t help but think, ‘what will happen to this place if a hurricane hits’. That is a thought that runs through my mind when we visit a lot of coastal Florida. What if?

What Happens Next?

The geography of a place means little compared to the heart of it, and what happened here is a complicated story of nature versus humanity. We understand the strange phenomenon of stay or leave and all of the factors that come into play when making that decision and we have no judgment to pass regarding that. Resilience is a word that is commonly applied in a situation like this, and I think it will serve our population well as we move forward.

In the immediate term, the basic needs of those directly affected will be met and the restoration of power will continue. Florida will embark on the process of rebuilding. Some folks will never return, while others will build stronger, more secure homes. Every storm is costly, but this one may not be worth the price of paradise for many displaced residents. A lot of insurance carriers have already stopped writing policies in some of our most vulnerable areas, and that will likely be expanded to include a broad section of our state, if not all of it.

For many who wish to rebuild, it will likely be prohibitive because of the rising cost of building materials, inflation, high-interest rates, and stricter building codes. Codes that were established after Andrew hit in 1992 have served us well, but will likely need to be updated as new findings emerge.

All of these considerations add up to one thing – $$. Florida is a popular retirement state and always will be, but the profile of a typical retiree will look very different in the future than it does today.

After each major storm in Florida, and there have been a few, there is an opportunity for evaluation and education. Maybe, if we look closely enough, there is something to be learned.

Our hearts go out to the nearly 2M residents affected by this storm. Our prayer is for kindness, compassion, patience and resilience.

39 thoughts on “The Price of Living In Paradise

  1. The devastation from Ian is tragic. Like you, we’ve loved the time we’ve spent on Sanibel Island, biking and enjoying beautiful Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge. I just said to Eric a couple of weeks ago, “Want to go spend a week on Sanibel in early December?” It makes me so sad to know that part of the coast is changed forever, and that so many people are suffering.

    I’m glad you escaped the storm, and I’m grateful that we escaped this time, too. We’re still traveling and won’t arrive home until the end of this month. We prepared our home and property as best we could before we left in June just in case…but I don’t think any amount of preparation would help in the event of a direct hit from a storm of that magnitude. It’s definitely making us think about our long term plans…meanwhile, we’re doing what we can to support the relief efforts, including donating to World Central Kitchen. They’re a great organization, on the scene providing food to those who have been displaced and are without electricity.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Laurel, there were a lot of variables to this storm that made it very unpredictable. Even so, we felt secure in the southeast and like most people, thought it would be a Tampa Bay storm. My advice to anyone is to do exactly as you did – prepare your property to the extent possible and leave. We roll the dice with every passing season and hope that it won’t be our turn. Supporting the relief effort is the best thing we can do right now. I know of the World Central Kitchen and appreciate the work they do. Thank you for suggesting it. Be safe in your travels.


  2. Hi Suzanne – I saw that footage from the stationary camera and was horrified by the amount of wind and water and the devastation that played out. It’s hard to imagine such widespread damage and the huge loss and subseqent rebuilding necessary. What you pointed out about the cost of building materials etc is so relevant in today’s world and my heart goes out to those who have lost so much and have to start again. Thanks for giving me a better idea of where it all happened and making it all seem so much more real – and my heart goes out to all those who’ve been caught up in this. The US has certainly had more than its fair share of natural disasters over the last few years.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Leanne, I know that terrible things happen all over the world and we can sometimes become immune to our true feelings and reactions. This was just my way of saying, ‘hey guys, this happened to people and places that I know and love’ and it could just as easily have been me. Balancing a heavy heart and gratitude is indeed a strange dichotomy.


  3. Nancy Dobbins

    Hi Suzanne,
    We are still in NH so like you we were glued to the broadcast coverage of Ian, thinking that we would be ok since we are so far inland. We watched in horror as Punta Gorda, less than an hour from our home and a favorite day trip destination, was washed away. And, as the path shifted East we watched helplessly as the eye wall passed over Lake Placid. Many of our neighbors homes were total losses. We had siding and trim damage only so consider ourselves lucky. Thankfully we have good neighbors who are full time and sent us photos and inspected for leaks.
    This is a tough one. Adjustments need to be made to mitigate for the effects of climate change, but not sure there is political appetite to make those hard decisions, especially DeSantis with his eye on the White House. And with the state now picking up the tab for the insurers who either bailed out of FL or went bankrupt I wonder how the restoration and rebuild will go…
    Glad you east coast folks came through ok. Florida will never be the same.


    1. Hi Nancy, I have been thinking of you and wondering if your place made it through the storm. So glad to hear all is well. We were lucky. Unfortunately, not all of the East Coast faired as well. St. Augustine had a tremendous amount of flood water. I certainly don’t have any answers, but I do know that we can’t survive without change. Unfortunately, that comes with a hefty price tag.


  4. I appreciate the in-depth look regarding this situation, Suzanne. When we hear and see the coverage of natural storms like these, we usually understand the destruction and effect on people’s lives, but I have never considered what it would mean for the future. As in costs for reconstruction could be prohibitive and some residents might have had enough. It’s hard to believe that Florida might shift as a retirement state and might even be surpassed by Arizona, for example. The more I read and hear about the issues our world faces, the more I believe that being mobile is a/the way to go.


    1. Liesbet, I saw the saddest thing this morning as I was returning home. A couple, probably 75 or so, carrying their possessions on a small trailer attached to their vehicle. The trailer was heaped up with plastic containers and s secured with rope. No doubt they were survivors. It was a visual I won’t soon forget.

      You and Marc have the right idea. Now, if someone would invent an amphibious home that can be driven to safety, I’d be all over that!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Jan, that happened to Malcolm’s Aunt and Uncle also. (84 and 86) They stayed and had to be rescued during the storm. We still don’t know the extent of the damage to their home, which we imagine is considerable, but they are safe. I hope you hear from your family soon. Here is a website for reporting missing people. You might want to look into it.


  5. Suzanne,
    You’ve given us a very thoughtful summary of a tragic situation. For many years, my Mom and Stepfather spent the winter in Bonita Springs, and I’m certain it suffered from the storm. It will be interesting to see what evolves in that area in the coming years–I imagine the very wealthy will take over. Ian passed over my son’s home in Charleston, but it was primarily a rain and wind event. He is still without power, but otherwise, ok. So glad y’all were spared.


    1. Hi Joe, just a few miles from where we live a developer has put up a massive modular home park within yards of the river. Some are slightly elevated (five or six feet) and others are a full story off the ground. Beyond the river is a small barrier island and then the Atlantic ocean. Makes no sense to me that these structures are allowed, but they meet current building codes and they satisfy a market for visiting snowbirds. They are not cheap at a starting price of around 450. Shaking my head as to where we go from here.

      I am glad that your family and their home survived Ian. No power is a pain, but at least the temps are cooperating. We had 70’s this morning and it felt wonderful.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. We vacation/winter along the coast, just west of Tampa so we were closely watching things unfold. We’re thankful our area was not in the direct path, but we do expect to see some changes when we get there in January. I feel for those in the Fort Myers area and also wonder if the beaches will ever be the same again. I’d be so afraid to build anything on them and I can see why insurance carriers don’t want to cover them. I’m betting rates for all of Florida will rise again, as they did after a previous hurricane. Glad you’re safe.


    1. Hi Linda, I remember when you visited Florida last season. If Ian decided to stay on track instead of taking that southward wabble it would have been a very different story for that area. Our friends in Apolo Beach and Clearwater evacuated early on, as it was so very uncertain. Their homes survived as well.

      Insurance rates are already impossible, so I can only imagine. The sad thing is that a lot of the communities that were destroyed were already uninsurable because of past events. Those folks were rolling the dice. I get it. I wouldn’t do it, but I get it.

      My brother was just in Mexico Beach, which was completely destroyed 4 years ago by Michael. He says the beaches are beautiful and the community is better than ever. There is hope.


  7. Hi Suzanne, I’m glad you’re safe. It’s very sad to see the devastation caused by hurricane Ian in Florida. It will take major efforts, time and resources to re-build the infrastructure and communities. With the supply-demand issues since COVID-19 started, it will be more challenging than pre-COVID but I hope human resilience and the will to survive and thrive will overcome the challenges. My thoughts are with those who have been affected.

    I was in Atlantic Canada last weekend when hurricane Fiona made landfall in Nova Scotia. I was in a safe location, away from the hurricane’s direct path, but saw some of the destruction Fiona left behind. Thousands of people were/ are without power, many lost their homes, total displacement. Flooding, water damage, water-borne bacteria, molds, etc. are serious issues. Two major hurricanes within a week of each other! I’m doing what I can to support the relief efforts.


    1. Hi Natalie, seeing the devastation of a storm first-hand makes a powerful impact on the mind and heart. I was watching Fiona while Bermuda was in its path, and lost track when it was obvious that the island would be safe. I hadn’t realized it caused damage in Nova Scotia. So sad. Supporting relief efforts is the best we can do.


      1. Hi Suzanne, Fiona caused major damages in parts of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador. Recovery efforts have been underway but even after a week, some areas still experience power outage.


  8. I certainly watched a lot of coverage, but this post helped clarify the issues at hand. We have stayed in Sanibel, and we’ve also been numerous times to Naples and Marco Island. Even watching it on tv, it was hard to comprehend the damage and then understand how they will come back from it. Prayers to them all. The weather has certainly brought challenges across the country to so many, but this type of devastation is more than most can handle.


    1. Hi Judy, I am sure Lee County and surrounding areas will come back. It will just take a long time. It has taken Mexico Beach four years to recover and that was a comparatively small area and much less complicated in terms of access. Just getting contractors and supplies out to Sanibel will be a nightmare. I assume there will have to be a Ferry system at some point. Malcolm and I have been putting off a road trip to Naples and Marco and now regret that.


  9. I’m glad to hear you are unaffected but I feel for those who were. As you say, there is a price to be paid for living in such places, whether financial or worse. I hope the communities affected do recover eventually, even though they are likely to be changed forever by this storm.


    1. Hi Sarah, I am sure they will recover to some degree. Sanibel Island is very important to the economy of the region so I’m sure it will get massive attention. But, the supporting communities were affected too, and that is where (in the past) working people could afford to live. Right now, it feels like a big, sad mess.


  10. Suzanne, Every time I read something on Ian, my gut still clenches. It could have been us. We were on the direct path until just about 24 hours before landfall when it shifted east. Yes, we did evacuate, and when we left, I said goodbye to everything, really expecting us to lose it all. The complete devastation is mind-blowing. And yes, rebuilding now is going to be costly and long term. As I sit here looking out at a glorious blue sky, delightfully sunny with a light breeze, and planning on a beach walk… I need to make every day I live here count! Because at some point I know, unfortunately, that will be us.


  11. Suzanne, I have been thinking of you after seeing on the news about hurricane Ian. I am glad you and your family are safe. It must be heartbreaking to be told to evacuate, not knowing if you will have a home to return to. My heart goes out to all the people who have lost everything and some have even lost their lives.
    My mother was a flood survivor, her family lost everything. It changed her life completely.
    Thank you for sharing and explaining it all in depth. I hope that people can re-build and recover from this devastation.


  12. Thanks for letting us know you are okay. I watched Ian with great interest, both because of family in FL and because many bloggers I follow are there, too. The photos of the devastation are overwhelming, and I’ll assume it is worse when you’re looking at it in person. Now, of course, the question becomes who will rebuild and how? No clear answers to that.


  13. Wildfires in the west and hurricanes in the east, Mother Nature has been pissed for decades. My heart goes out to the uncountable families who are displaced due to Ian. Looking at your maps, it is really tragic that both sides of the state were affected to this degree. Being retired already had its limitations, but rebuilding shouldn’t be on that list. My dad’s home and a few were spared from the wildfires in Northern California, but they are back to where they still can’t afford to keep living there. I’m sure things will change for many folks. I continue to pray for those affected. Glad you are safe!


  14. Pingback: WQW #39: Brace for Windy Days – Marsha Ingrao – Always Write

  15. Pingback: WQW #40: Getting Ready for Cold Weather – Marsha Ingrao – Always Write

  16. While I’m glad you weren’t affected by Ian, I’m so sorry for those who lost loved ones and homes. I lived in Florida and was in the 1049 hurricane. I was just a kid but I remember the howling, strong winds and rain hitting the house. Then came the eye and quiet. Then the second part of the hurricane. I’ll take our California earthquakes any time. They both do great damage, but an earthquake hits and it’s over. Now that we know how to build buildings to withstand earthquakes better, less lives are lost. Our fires are another story! Mother Nature is speaking; we need to listen.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.