CRISTINA OSMENA: Sanibel Island’s newfound fame

About five or six months into the pandemic, embattled by the oppressive lockdowns, fires ranging dangerously close to the Bay Area city where we lived, plagued with visitations from termites, impossible air quality, and brown outs, we fled the state of California. It really felt like a flee since conditions were so dire the month we left. I felt an urgent need to escape the choking air—there was nothing leisurely about it.

We moved to Florida and lived in isolation there. But the space and the views and the fresh air were a significant improvement. We decided to buy a home in Florida and chose Sanibel Island because we wanted to be on the beach while the pandemic offered few outlets for entertainment. During COVID, it was an excellent choice. Instead of living out our monotonous isolation indoors, we walked on the beach each evening. The whole family joined. We brought our dog. The dog, it turns out, loved to swim. Though we saw very few people at first, Sanibel seemed like the perfect place to live out a pandemic. Come February, we would have been there for two years.

It’s not a tiny island, about fifteen miles across and five miles thick. On a map, it looks like the smile on a smiley face. The length of the smile runs west to east. Permanent residents number between 6,000 and 6,500 with visitors during peak months swelling the population to 20,000. It’s quaint, old fashioned, and obscure. Until last week.

I remember the hour the hurricane seemed to shift course and head right toward Sanibel. It took a sharp right turn from the northward path it was on and headed straight toward Sanibel as if a giant hurricane magnet on Sanibel turned on its powers and called Ian right to it. I called my husband and said the hurricane path has changed direction and is pointing right toward Sanibel.

I tried to watch the events through remote cameras installed at various spots on the island. But, at last, when the eye hit and 150 mph winds tore the place apart, the cameras stopped working. The worst of it played out over two to three hours with the wall of the eye coming right over Sanibel, touching the southernmost part where my house is located. I tried texting friends or emailing them. Some replied that they were about to evacuate; most did not reply at all. I don’t blame them.

We are not the most unfortunate residents of Sanibel. We are lucky to have another place to live. It is the people who made Sanibel their year-round home or those who lived their entire lives there who feel the lost most acutely. In Florida, hurricanes happen regularly so insurance companies know not to provide coverage to first floor losses in flood zones. Moreover, many people did not insure. It was either too expensive or they felt they could self-insure. My family does not need consolation. It is these people who do.

Ian was a category four hurricane when it passed over Sanibel. In the Philippines, typhoons are as commonplace as they are in Florida. Because of that, I have been trained not to take it as seriously. There’s something nostalgic, even cozy, about a really bad storm. One thing I will never do in the future: I will never ignore an evacuation order.