PBS and NPR for Southwest Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Resiliency townhall focused on how manmade and natural environments on Sanibel survived Hurricane Ian, and the lessons learned

Panelists at second townhall sponsored by SanCap Citizens for a Resilient Future
Pam James
Panelists at second townhall sponsored by SanCap Citizens for a Resilient Future

Dramatic stories of people surviving Hurricane Ian were the focus of the firstof three townhalls sponsored by the SanCap Citizens for a Resilient Future, in collaboration with the City of Sanibel.

The second townhall, held in April, focused on how well manmade structures and the natural environment on Sanibel weathered the storm.

Panelists Joyce Owens of Architecture Joyce Owens, LLCand Brad Nickel, of Benchmark General Contractors shared their expertise on what went right and what went wrong when it came to homes and businesses. James Owens from Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation and Michael Savarese, Ph.D. at the FGCU Water School focused on how well the island and it's natural environs fared the storm. Ellin Goetz of Goetz and Stropes Landscape Architecture extolled the positives for using native plants.

Sanibel City Councilman John Henshaw moderated the first two community events. He shared the purpose of the newly-formed consortium and the townhalls with the half filled theater at Big Arts on Sanibel Island.

"We hope that the sessions like these will instill in our citizens, business owners, and community leaders, a sense of resolve a sense of urgency, a sense of commitment, that like that a 50 years ago when Sanibel was founded and committed to protecting Sanibel from overdevelopment," said Henshaw. "We, our citizens and businesses, now commit to a plan for the future, and to protect Sanibel and Captiva from the devastation and destruction of more frequent and intense storms."

Lessons Learned: Manmade Structures

You look at what survived and what didn't. And when you're on these barrier islands, you really need to think about the investment that you're making. If you're pouring that much of your life and your savings into it, you really need to think about the important things on how to build a structure that's going to last these 100-year storms.
SanCap Citizens for a Resilient Future Townhall: Manmade Structures

Henshaw asked both Brad Nickel and Joyce Owens to speak to the kind of damage to physical structures that their engineers and architects saw after the storm, what construction techniques held up best, and what they recommend for their clients as they rebuild.

Nickel shared the biggest takeaway that he and Joyce Owens noticed once they were back on island a week after the storm .

"The biggest difference was is what was built to current code and what was built prior to Hurricane Andrew, because that was what really changed the Florida building code for the better," said Nickel. "What we noticed was most older homes did pretty bad."

He said that while structures made of cinderblock masonry withstood the storm better than wood, "the older wooden homes really didn't stand a chance."

He also said that ground level homes did not withstand storm surge compared to homes built on pilings.

What did go well? Nickel identified those structural elements that held up in the hurricane-force winds: foundations made of concrete structures, stucco siding over vinyl siding, and metal roofs

"Metal roofs seemed to do the best. Tile roofs they did ... okay ... a lot of those tiles are missing. Asphalt roofs really don't last, that's for sure. I would say 60 to 70% of our metal roofs survived okay," said Nickel.

Nickel recommended other ideas when storm-proofing a home: additional screws in the drip edge of gutters and foam in the attic which allows homeowners to close vents and soffits.

"A properly strapped roof shouldn't come off, but closing up those vents allows the air not to get up in there and kind of give you that uplift," he said,

Nickel spent a moment chastising homeowners who use the ground level as the Florida attic or Florida basement. He showed an photograph of a completely scoured ground floor, where the homeowner was picking through debris in the yard.

"What they're picking up is most of the stuff on your ground levels that you built out. I get it. It's the Florida attic or Florida basement. We need that space. But that's a direct result of most lower levels being built out, which doesn't meet code. You can't permit it. It's not covered by home owner insurance. I know most of you probably will do it again. But don't do it. It's not a good idea. All those knickknacks you'll just replace them again."

Architect Joyce Owens said that the area beneath raised homes actually does have a purpose. "According to our FEMA regulations, we're really not supposed to have anything down underneath on those ground floors. Egress is all that you're supposed to have down there. And so if you play by the rules, it really does allow the water to flow through."

Owens also recommended homeowners consider using commercial building codes instead of residential.

"I feel like the homeowners in our community haven't really been educated about the opportunities that are available to build in some of this resiliency into their own homes and investing in them to make them stronger," said Owens. "Once we explain to our clients why we're designing a little bit stronger, obviously, it's going to cost more money. But they appreciate and understand that in the long run, that we're going to invest in their future and in their homes."

When it comes to storm surge, Owens said her team is focusing on how her team can build stronger and smarter. She recommended strengthening and deepening foundation pilings and shear walls with concrete and steel. Then, Owens introduced a unique technique to the foundation design.

"Those are located in the building so that they are perpendicular to the beach. And so the idea is when the water comes through, the waves come through from the surge, then those walls are parallel to the direction of the water.," said Owens. "So you're not pushing against the structure, the structure that's holding up these buildings is actually in the same plane as the water that's pushing against it."

Owens said that using this foundation technique would only increase the cost by 10% per square foot.

Lessons Learned: Natural Environment

As you drive down Periwinkle Way today, you'll notice that canopy is starting to form back. We're starting to see our dunes coming back. Our mangroves on the bay side are starting to recover slowly but surely. And many of our native vegetation, especially the salt-tolerant vegetation is starting to come back."

One of the reasons that the vegetation on Sanibel withstood the storm can be credited to the Sanibel land use plan, according to James Evans, CEO of Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation.

"And, it's not just the natural areas that make our communities so special. It's the citizens of our communities that have invested and bought into the Sanibel plan and Captiva plan that make it what it is today. So I think when I talk about our natural areas, and we talk about the successes that we've seen here on the islands, it's due to the the investment that you've made in our communities."

A large part of the land use plan, adopted in 1976, involved minimal commercial development and the conservation of land. Evans attributes that preservation to the resilience of the island environment.

"We've been able to preserve and protect over 70% of Sanibel Island, in perpetuity, for wildlife and wildlife habitat. And we've done that through our partners with the city of Sanibel, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, as well as some of our state and other local partners like Lee County, " said Evans. "What that means is that 70% of our entire island was taken out of harm's way during the storm event. Could you imagine if we had 70% more infrastructure, inundated or 70% of our infrastructure that was impacted by the wind event? It would be a totally different storm, we would look much more like Fort Myers Beach than we do like Sanibel."

Evans showed that preserving sensitive areas ranging from the beach dunes to the freshwater interior wetland system, and from the hardwood hammock to mangrove marshes, makes a difference in the defense against storms. Evans especially highlighted the importance of mangroves.

"Our mangrove forests were the first line of defense, especially on the bay side with the surge," he said. "They didn't stop the storm surge. But they did absorb a lot of that energy and probably knocked down that surge pretty significantly. And, of course, anywhere we had mangroves along the windward side of buildings, we saw a significant improvement on those buildings, less less damage, less impact on those buildings."

Evans says that while it may take 18 months or more for those mangroves to recover from the battering, they are critical to our wildlife habitat, as well as for the protection of property.

"If you have mangroves on your property, don't be quick to go out there and cut them down or get a permit for a seawall. In fact, they're protected by state law." Instead, Evans encouraged homeowners to plant mangroves on their property. "It's important to note that those mangroves provide a much more important service, for your property for our water quality and for our tourism-based economy because of the fish habitat and other things they provide. And they protect our shorelines."

Michael Savarese, Ph.D. then spoke on how the shoreline on the Gulf side of Sanibel was dramatically changed or morphed because of Hurricane Ian. He described the damage as having come partly from the sustainable winds of up to 161 miles an hour as an upgraded hurricane 5. Then, when storm slowed that's when the real devastation hit.

"What made this storm so wicked was the fact that the it moved relatively parallel to the peninsula to the west coast of Florida," said Savarese. "And before it made landfall, it slowed down considerably. Its forward speed was reduced to eight miles per hour. What that meant was this storm winds had a longer period of time to pile water up to increase that surge."

He continued, "Surge is kind of a nasty, nasty temptress. That's hard, hard to deal with."

The surge helped to scrape the landscape, pulling debris back out to sea after it pushed inland. (See a before and after section of Sanibel from the U.S.G.S.) The water intrusion from the Gulf side, he said, was aided when when people cut vegetation to create pathways.

Ellin Goetz of Goetz and Stropes Landscape Architecture saw that as an opportunity. Since much of the land has been denuded of vegetation, she encouraged the audience to consider going native and planting a natural landscape.

"You probably now have many opportunities to do this kind of thing because you have been scraped by the wrath of Ian," said Goetz, who is based in Naples. "And to use plants that are quite attractive because they're way easier to take care of when they start getting going. You're not putting fertilizer on them. You're not doing pesticides. You're not doing all those artificial things that we in Naples love to do."

A third community event in the series called "Emerging from Hurricane Ian: Stronger & More Resilient) is scheduled for Monday, May 22, at Big Arts on Sanibel Island. The group is bringing together professionals who led the Sanibel, Captiva, and Lee County emergency response to last September's catastrophic storm. The event can be attended in person (900 Dunlop Rd.) or viewed on the City of Sanibel's Facebook

SanCap Citizens for a Resilient Future is an alliance of concerned citizens and community organizations:

WGCU is your trusted source for news and information in Southwest Florida. We are a nonprofit public service, and your support is more critical than ever. Keep public media strong and donate now. Thank you.