Hurricane Ian rips at the heart of Sanibel Island's golf community

Aftermath leaves Florida region's residents, courses looking at a long road to recovery, though hope and resilience buoy spirits

Cart Lot — Sanibel Island Golf Club
Sanibel Island Golf Club's cart lot was decimated by Hurricane Ian's winds and storm surge.

Wednesday was a D-Day of sorts for Southwest Florida’s Sanibel Island as a host of charter boat captains and private vessels navigated San Carlos Bay from nearby Fort Myers to understand Hurricane Ian’s devastation for the first time. Nothing good was awaiting their arrival, but a random bicycle and a hot tub did play key roles in the excursion.

This revelation is best depicted by the visit of Gene Taylor, the golf professional at Sanibel Island Golf Club. Taylor, also a local realtor, evacuated his home and the island for Fort Myers early last week to brave the storm, which made landfall at daybreak on Sept. 28 and brought 150-mph winds and a 10-foot storm surge.

One week later, with the collapse of the Sanibel Causeway prohibiting automobile traffic in either direction, Taylor caught a ride with a charter boat captain. Overhead, the continual whirring of Chinook helicopters persisted as they made emergency trips from the mainland to various locations. President Joe Biden visited the area Wednesday with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and flew over Sanibel. "You can see a whole hell of a lot of damage from the air," Biden said.

Taylor’s boat ride docked at one of the beaches. It was a stark sight since the water-infested surroundings and fallen trees prohibited finding the usual landmarks. The Sanibel Lighthouse, on the eastern tip, still stood but historic surrounding buildings were gone. On shore, tangled amid the remaining foliage was an abandoned bicycle, which Taylor commandeered to better take in the island.

What Taylor saw during his cycling trip was shocking, “like a war zone,” he says. He biked to the Sanibel Island Golf Club and rode the cart paths. When he walked on the Bermudagrass fairways, they were “full of sludge and slippery” from the salt water and muck infestation brought on by storm surge.

Taylor biked 1 mile away to his one-story home on Periwinkle Way. He found it filled with 7 feet of water and sludge. He met with the course owner and superintendent, and boated back to Fort Myers with them as visitors are currently allowed on the island only from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. He will return numerous times over the coming weeks and months.

"I found that bike mangled up in the trees and that should have been a sign," says Taylor, while driving near dusk on Wednesday. "Today was a double whammy for me. You lose your home and lose your livelihood — all just like that. My house looked like somebody picked it up, shook it and put it back down."

The suddenly isolated barrier island — 12 miles long and 3 miles wide — earns the travel branding, “Naturally, You’ll Love It Here.” The island has an unusual east-west orientation and is shaped like a C.

Among the escalating impact to lives, buildings and jobs in Southwest Florida (more than 100 Florida deaths reported and estimates of billions of dollars in damage) and, in particular, Lee County, are the three golf courses — two semi-private and one private — that call Sanibel Island home. The courses are set amid numerous waterways, floral and wildlife that bring Audubon certification to all of them.

Sanibel Island Golf Club is the oldest course on the island, built in the southeastern portion in 1976 by Truman Wilson and Bill Dietsch. The Dunes Golf and Tennis Club, a 1985 Mark McCumber design, was built just to the right of the causeway that connects to Sanibel Island. Both are shortish semi-private facilities dominated by water. The private Sanctuary Golf Club, a 1992 Arthur Hills design, is located to the northwestern edge abutting the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

“I have been in Florida for 20 years and through a lot of these storms, but this was the first one where water was the main story instead of wind,” says Geoff Lofstead, the executive director of the South Florida Section of the PGA of America. “The flooding has created lots of damage unlike any other I have seen. Anything west of U.S. 41 from Bonita Springs and north are in a pretty tough spot.

“We began a phone campaign last Friday, mainly for courses in Collier, Lee and Charlotte counties. I know we talked to up to 12 PGA professionals — at this point — who were flooded out of their houses. I have never had PGA members break down like I have had over the last few days."

The powerful storm had enough wind to tear the netting surrounding the Ft. Myers location of Topgolf, leaving the facility closed and as if a large animal had escaped from its confines. Other courses in the storm’s path from Southwest Florida across to Daytona Beach are still trying to get their feet under them, even if the damage is just 6 to 10 inches of persistent rainfall and debris.

The aftermath of Hurricane Ian left Sanibel Island Golf Club with debris scattered about, trees snapped and fairways covered with sludge.

While officials at Sanctuary were unavailable and phone lines weren’t working, it’s almost certain that the course sustained some damage. The Dunes general manager Brian Kautz was also visiting Sanibel for the first time on Wednesday. His family evacuated to Ft. Lauderdale before returning home to Ft. Myers earlier this week. He rode over in retired teaching professional and part-time club worker Chris Pais’ boat.

"Our golf course is 90-95 percent brown since Bermudagrass doesn’t tolerate salt water at all," Kautz says. "I walked out on the course when I first got there and a helicopter landed in our first fairway, which they’re using as a landing pad to get supplies in and set up a fire station. I found sets of rental clubs down the street from the cart barn."

There is good news, however. Officials hope that rapid repair to a portion of the causeway will allow some vehicular traffic by the end of October. Course assessments will take longer to consider. The PGA of America has enacted relief efforts to assist PGA professionals and facilities and other efforts are just beginning.

"Sanibel is a very tight-knit community," Kautz says. "For so many of the people on Wednesday it was like the hurricane happened yesterday."

Hut Tub on The Dunes
Staff members of The Dunes Golf and Tennis Club pose for a photo with a hot tub that was relocated to the club's 18th green by Hurricane Ian.

A hopeful attitude prevails, no greater than what Taylor and Kautz and their staffs have developed.

Taylor told the story of a family with four children who had to be taken off the island just after the storm to a shelter in Tampa. They had lost everything but aim to return and rebuild "because the community was there for us," Taylor says.

In the days after the storm hit, someone took a picture of the island 18th green at The Dunes course. Sitting on the green was a hot tub, from who knows where. As Kautz saw the devastation on Wednesday morning, he gathered his staff and they posed for a quick photo around the hot tub.

“The first thing I told the staff on Tuesday night is that we’re going to take a picture with this hot tub,” Kautz says. “Who knows, that might be a new feature on our 18th hole. We’ve all got to have a sense of humor and hope. After all, you can’t beat Mother Nature.”