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Hurricane Ian — One Year Later: Slow but Sure

Sanibel-Captiva businesses recovering

By TIFFANY REPECKI - | Oct 2, 2023

It has been one year since Hurricane Ian brought the islands to a halt with its devastating damage and the recovery of the Sanibel-Captiva business community has been a slow one — but it is returning.

Before the storm hit on Sept. 28, 2022, the SanCap Chamber had an active membership of over 540 businesses. President and Chief Executive Officer John Lai reported that Jerry’s Foods on Sanibel was the first to reopen at the end of October. It provided essential goods, but could not carry frozen foods and the refrigerated items were limited. It took another month or two before more businesses reopened.

While the number of pre-hurricane businesses in operation remains small, it does continue to grow.

“We have just under 100 businesses that are reopened and that’s across all sectors on both islands — retail, restaurants, resorts, and banking and professional services, as well,” Lai said on Aug. 21.

In the accommodations sector, the Chamber approximated that there were just over 2,600 short-term lodging units on Sanibel and Captiva prior to Ian. He explained that the number could never be confirmed because many of the units are tied to condo associations and such and those can fluctuate.

“Right now we are sitting with 41 open on Sanibel and right around 164 on Captiva,” Lai said.

“We’re sitting at less than 10% of our lodging inventory a year later,” he added.

But with each passing month, there is some good news on the horizon as the recovery pushes on. In late September, the Sanibel Island Beach Resort — formerly Holiday Inn — was planning to reopen 98 units.

Lai noted that it is difficult to judge timelines for reopenings because of the ties to associations.

“Mainly because you’re dealing with hundreds of individual owners, sitting in homeowners associations, dealing with insurance, dealing with permitting, dealing with contractors,” he said.

The Chamber’s prediction is about 40% of the total pre-storm units will be back for the 2025 season.

As for the food service industry, there were 34 open island establishments as of late August.

“Grocery and food trucks are included,” Lai said of the figure.

Again, there is a ray of light looking forward as several restaurants are anticipating returns during the fourth quarter. There is Cheeburger Cheeburger and The Lighthouse Cafe on Sanibel, and the Keylime Bistro and The Green Flash on Captiva. The Sundial Beach Resort & Spa is also expecting to reopen its main building restaurants before the year’s end, including the Sea Breeze Cafe and Turtle’s Tiki Bar.

“In order for the restaurants to survive and thrive with the lack of hotel rooms, we’re really dependent on the regional residents of Lee County and Southwest Florida coming out to the islands and taking advantage of the fact there are no waits, there are no crowds,” he said.

With 24 retailers open toward the end of August, that sector seems to pacing its reopenings.

“We know that there are some plazas ready to go, and we know that there are others coming along more slowly,” Lai said. “Tahitian Gardens and Periwinkle Place Shops are coming back online.”

He explained that because of the reduction in available accommodations on Sanibel-Captiva and the decreased foot traffic and customers as a result, retailers are being strategic about when to reopen.

“They are shooting to open for season 2024,” Lai said. “That seems to be the consistent theme that I’m hearing throughout the retail community.”

Another sign of encouragement for the islands is found in the professional services sector.

“To have things like doctors’ offices open — attorneys, trust companies and banks,” he said. “Our business community benefits from that, but our residential community absolutely needs that. So, it’s exciting for us to see those services come back.”

The Chamber has received word that the CVS on Sanibel aims to reopen in the first quarter.

“Progress is never as quick as we would like to see it, but if we can remind ourselves of where we were a year ago,” Lai said, pointing out that the Sanibel Causeway was expected to take months or a year to rebuild.

“We’re a lot further than we thought we would be,” he added.

Lai thanked the island business community for the work that it has put in over the past year.

“We look forward to the years to come,” he said.

The Chamber offers a list reopened businesses on Wander: Maps & Navigation. The GPS-enabled interactive map also pinpoints open beach accesses, bike parking areas and the user’s relative location. Points of interest can be filtered by seven categories. Users can download the app from Apple’s App Store and via Google Play. They can also access the map online at tinyurl.com/sancapwandermap.