SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla. — Six months ago, it took only 15 days to reopen the Sanibel Causeway after Hurricane Ian. But that was just the beginning of a long road ahead. The work hasn’t stopped, nor has the need for major repairs.
Now, there’s a new deadline: hurricane season.
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“Yeah I’ve seen lots of changes,” Sally Myers said.
Myers watched crews build the Sanibel Causeway in the early 2000s. She’s been spending half her year in Southwest Florida for nearly 40 years.
“I’m a snowbird. I love the area down here,” she said.
Now she’s watching crews rebuild the Sanibel Causeway two decades after it was transformed from a drawbridge.
Right now FDOT and construction crews are still working on temporary repairs, under emergency permits.
“If you’ve traveled the causeway at all, you’ve seen the installation of what we call steel sheet pile walls and those are going in places where the roadway was compromised during the storm,” FDOT Project Engineer Kati Sherrard said.
It’s a different kind of retaining wall to protect the road than it was before the storm, and that’s the point. Crews are taking data from Ian and using it as the new design criteria.
Sherrard said it’s more resilient.
“The goal is to construct improvements that will have the same look and feel of the causeway prior to Hurricane Ian, but able to maintain access to the barrier islands should the causeway be impacted by another Hurricane,” Sherrard said.
After Ian, FDOT paused all projects in Southwest Florida to only focus on rebuilding bridges. That’s how the causeway was able to reopen in record time.
“We were dumping an average of one dump truck full of material every minute and a half,” Sherrard said.
The quick action still sits with residents.
“It was amazing. It was amazing,” Myers said.
“I was really impressed with that,” Clare Scheurer said.
Construction crews couldn’t keep up that pace forever. However, Sherrard said the goal is to make sure the temporary road is well protected by June when hurricane season starts.
By then, all temporary work should be complete so FDOT can start permanent repairs. That includes projects that need to be done but aren’t critical for access.
“Permanent repairs is almost like kind of putting everything back together to look like it did before the storm,” Sherrard said.
Not everyone is as confident it can ever go back.
“It will never be what it was,” Scheurer said.
Scheurer used to use the causeway islands as a launch pad to kite surf. Now he and many others are using the beach off McGregor Boulevard before the toll plaza for their favorite water activities.
“This is the only place that has enough beach left to land a kite all by yourself for instance,” he said.
Before Hurricane Ian, Lee County started to make a plan to improve the causeway islands and Sanibel’s shoreline.
“We are working with [the county] to go ahead and incorporate some of those improvements while we’re here as a way to be more efficient overall,” Sherrard said.
But most can’t be completed until the causeway repairs are complete.
Sherrard said one of the biggest parts of permanent repairs that crews will start doing in June include, reconstructing the roadway and other elements along McGregor Boulevard and the causeway islands to meet current standards and criteria. The goal is to finish that by the end of 2023.
The rest of the repairs and Lee County Causeway Island improvement projects will be done sometime in 2024.
Right now the price tag is nearly $340 million. It’s mostly funded by The Federal Highway Administration, but Lee County is on the hook for about $51 million. FDOT said that number could change considering it’s a fluid project.
Sherrard doesn’t live in Southwest Florida. Most of the people you see working on the causeway don’t. But it’s become their second home over the last six months and beyond as they try to recreate the home we all once knew.
“I just remember thinking to myself through all of this destruction, this place still has so much beauty and I think that made me instantly attached,” Sherrard said.
Expect closures on the causeway as FDOT continues to work over the next year. Be patient and kind to crews on the side of the road.
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