For the past several years, my husband and I have chosen to celebrate our birthdays by taking a short trip together, and this year my husband chose to go to Sanibel Island. We had booked our trip for the third weekend in September long before anyone started talking about Hurricane Irma. But when the category-five hurricane hit southwest Florida in early September, we figured our chances of celebrating my husband’s birthday on Sanibel Island ranged from small to none. Honestly, we knew our disappointment over a cancelled trip was absolutely nothing compared to the hardship endured by those in the hurricane’s path. The televised images of Irma’s landfall were devastating and the suffering it caused was beyond heart-breaking.
After the hurricane, we followed the news to see the extent of the damage, partly to know when we would be able to contact the resort in order to cancel our reservations. Since Sanibel is a barrier island just fifty–some miles from Naples, which took a direct hit, we weren’t even sure if the resort would still be standing. Both my husband and I love Sanibel Island and have visited it many times since we discovered it over thirty years ago. It was painful to realize there was a very real possibility that the hurricane had destroyed the island, or damaged it beyond recognition.
Amazingly, Sanibel sustained very little damage from the hurricane that wreaked so much havoc on other parts of Florida and the Caribbean. We checked the city’s official web page obsessively, so we knew when electricity and water service was restored, when the streets and been cleared of the tangle of branches and trees, and when businesses began to reopen. Then the resort actually called us to say they were up and running and ready for visitors.
Part of me felt guilty for even thinking of going on vacation in a state where so many people were still struggling with tremendous loss. But we went ahead with our trip for two reasons. One, we knew that Sanibel (like much of Florida) has an economy that is directly tied to tourism and losing that income would make it even harder to recover from the hurricane. Secondly, both of us felt a strong need to see for ourselves that our beloved Sanibel Island really was okay.
And it was. True, the signs of the hurricane were everywhere, from the piles of uprooted trees and torn limbs by the side of the road waiting to be picked up, to the hand-lettered “We’re Open!” signs outside many stores and restaurants. We saw utility trucks from all over the country as workers continued to restore power to nearby communities. And everywhere we went, people would ask each other “How are you doing?” “Is your power back on yet?” “Did your house sustain much damage?” Perfect strangers were constantly offering each other encouragement and support as they traded stories of surviving the hurricane.
I have always believed Sanibel Island is a beautiful place. And this visit didn’t change my view, despite the signs of damage and the piles of debris from the storm. Because this time, the beauty I saw wasn’t limited to the palm trees and the sandy white beaches. This time, I saw a community coming together through hope and hard work, repairing the damage and moving forward with determination and optimistic pride. And that was the most beautiful thing of all.