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  • Writer's pictureellencdonker

AFTER THE STORM by Ellen Donker

The sun still rises.


I was about 16 years old when I first visited Sanibel and Captiva in Florida. Nestled in a strand of barrier islands off the Gulf coast of Fort Myers, they still strike me as idyllic so many years later.


My father had discovered South Seas Island Resort, a 330-acre area located at the tip of Captiva, in the late 1970s and bought a beach-facing condominium in the complex that was being built. Although the property had a history dating back to the late 1800s when George Washington Carver homesteaded the land, this was the beginning of its development as a resort.


My parents rented out the condo except when they wanted to visit, and I often tagged along. I’ve always been a beach lover but I was particular smitten by the Gulf of Mexico, where I could lay on my back to be lulled by the gentle lapping of the waves or spot a family of dolphins at play from my patch in the sand. I was tickled by the sight of coquinas burrowing their way into the sand or sand pipers skittering to avoid the water.


But the shells! Never before had I seen so many perfect shells washed up on the shore.

I spent hours traversing the beach, identifying and gathering olive shells, whelks, tulip shells, conches, lion’s paws and more to take home. There was always one more shell mound to sift through, one more perfect specimen to find. Captiva was heaven to me.


Eventually, my father decided he wanted a house on Sanibel as he and my mother were spending more time in Florida and less time in New Jersey. I was sorry that our home no longer faced the beach and I missed the quaintness of Captiva, the smaller of the islands, but all I had to do was hop on my bike to be seaside in less than a mile.


When my husband and I were dating I got to introduce him to the wonder of Sanibel and he was just as enchanted by it as I was. Our triplets followed a few years later with their first plane ride at 11 months old and rarely missed their annual visits thereafter.


Sanibel has always been an oasis for our family – a place to keep no schedule, to smell the sea air, to observe wildlife at a nearby nature preserve, and to pedal our way to a favorite restaurant for breakfast.


At the end of January, I returned to Sanibel, but it wasn’t to relax. Hurricane Ian, a category 4 storm had ravaged the island on September 28 with 150 mph sustained winds and 10 to 15 feet of storm surge and this was the first time back for my mother and me (my father having passed away in 2016). The storm had wiped out parts of the causeway – a three-mile bridge from Fort Myers to the island – and decimated homes and businesses, roads and vegetation. With no way to get to Sanibel except by boat, we wouldn’t know until October 10, when a property manager could inspect the house, that it had been spared. On October 21, a temporary causeway was opened to the public and by December the power was restored to the house.


Seeing the island four months after the hurricane was sobering. Although much of the external clean-up around properties had been done, all manner of debris was still caught in the swampy vegetation along the side of the main road – refrigerators, throw pillows, dressers, mattresses, ice chests, basically anything you’d find in a home. In my mother’s neighborhood stood a giant garbage dump with double-long semis coming and going all day long. Most of the businesses were closed (some may never reopen) save for a handful of restaurants, one grocery store and a gas station. One of our favorite breakfast places, the Over Easy Café, apologized online to anyone who might find the restaurant’s walk-in freezer or ice machine in their back yard.


The bike paths that wind around the island were open but gone were the scores of families usually found pedaling. The beaches were still closed but I was able to bike over to one of them because more than anything I wanted to walk on the sand and feel the waves wash over my feet. When I did, I found a beautifully intact conch. And then I spied another one until my pockets were bulging and I had to ask one of the other shell seekers if they had a spare bag for me to store my treasures.

My happy place may look different, but what matters most to me remains: the years of memories I’ve made on Sanibel and the chance to make new ones. And that’s the nature of life, I suppose: there’s no stopping change or the force of nature. But there is beauty in new life and the chance to learn how to accept it, maybe even with joy. The sun continues to rise, waves still tumble on the shore and I will always stoop down to look for the gems at my feet.

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