Estero Island Historic Society looks to save island’s legacy after Hurricane Ian's destruction
Ellie Bunting’s father had a heart attack when he was 48.
The small family lived in New Jersey at the time, and Bunting’s father decided to retire to Florida.
They moved to Fort Myers Beach in 1953 when Bunting was three years old. They traveled to a home on Long Island in New York over the summers, since air conditioning then was a rarity.
During the rest of the year, she lived at the Red Coconut RV Park with her mother and father.
Bunting loved every minute of it.
“There is a certain camaraderie if you're from the beach,” said Bunting, president of the Estero Island Historic Society. “It was like your own little island.”
Growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, everything she needed was on the island. There were four gas stations, banks, an appliance store, and shops to buy everyday clothing.
“We had all these things for the island people because there was nothing from here to downtown Fort Myers,” she said.
When Bunting first moved to Florida, it took a day trip just to get off the island.
A swing bridge had to open for the hundreds of shrimp boats that thrived in the gulf coast waters.
“it would open for the shrimp boats in the afternoon, and traffic would literally back off to McGregor. Getting off the island to go all the way to downtown Fort Myers to get something was a trip,” Bunting said.
She grew up going to the Fort Myers Beach Library to spend days lost in a book.
Every day after school, she and friends went to the Gulf View Shop to sit at the lunch counter. They would drink bubbly sodas and eat chips while reading comic books.
Businesses like the Gulf Shore Inn thrived with families enjoying a taste of the island life.
“We were not a tourist destination,” Bunting said. “We were a community.”
Hurricane Ian hit land on Sept. 28, 2022, and destroyed many of the buildings that Bunting grew up with, including damage to the RV park where Bunting lived for 14 years. Now, she’s tasked with preserving the history that the hurricane washed away.
According to Jennifer Dexter, communications coordinator for Fort Myers Beach, the town has no plans to commemorate the historical buildings that were lost in the storm.
Bunting said there were four buildings that stood on Fort Myers Beach that were built in 1921: the Estero Island Cottage Museum, The Gulfshore and The Cottage Bar, Silver Sands Cottages, and a house.
Of those historical structures, only the Cottage Museum stands after Hurricane Ian.
Bunting said that the hardest part for her is that there’s nothing to memorialize the lost buildings, as they were swept away.
“I think everybody should care about history. About the way things used to be,” she said.
Bunting is tasked with organizing the Cottage Museum. Artifacts and pictures about the history of Fort Myers Beach lay in boxes. One glass display case was left intact after the storm.
“I think [the museum is going to show] before Ian and after Ian, because I think [the island] is going to change dramatically in the next five years,” Bunting said.
In all her years living on the island, Bunting said Hurricane Ian was the worst storm she saw.
Even in 1960, Hurricane Donna was described by former News-Press reporter Lee Melsek as driving water levels five feet high.
“Mobile homes, boats, washing machines, parts of roofs and walls and dining room sets were scattered through miles of mangrove jungles lining Estero Bay,” Melsek wrote, as quoted on a blog Bunting runs.
Despite this, Bunting said the damage from both severe storms was drastically different.
“[In Hurricane Donna], a lot of buildings were damaged or even collapsed, but they weren’t gone,” Bunting said.
She lived in the Red Coconut RV Park then.
“The trailers were all turned over and twisted in mangroves, but they weren’t gone. Now they’re gone,” she said.
Bunting said she hopes to put displays in the Estero Island Cottage Museum that show the businesses and buildings that existed before the hurricane to remember them. For some structures, Hurricane Ian left nothing behind.
“[Many structures are gone] either because of development or they’re going because of storms,” Bunting said. “I don’t know how you bring it back except museum pictures, histories, talking about it, and bringing guest speakers in,” she said.
Many people who worked to preserve the history of Fort Myers Beach have lived on the island since the 1940’s. They worked on preserving the history in the 1990’s by putting the museum together. Now, they’re too old to carry on the work.
“They were really dedicated. Now they’re in their 90’s and they just can’t do it anymore,” Bunting said.
The responsibility lays on her shoulders, and two other Estero Island Historic Society board members, to carry the legacy of the Fort Myers Beach community.
And she’s looking for help.
“Someone's got to keep writing this history down, because if you don't write it down, what happens to it?,” she asked.
Bunting needs volunteers to physically help sort through artifacts and pictures at the museum. She also is looking for help from someone with a knowledge in museum studies to help preserve items and help curate the Cottage Museum.
Once the Cottage Museum gets power, the Estero Island Historic Society will host organizing-work parties for anyone who wants to help preserve the history of Fort Myers Beach.
Anyone who is interested in helping the Estero Island Historic Society should contact Bunting at email@example.com.
This story was produced by Democracy Watch, a news service provided by Florida Gulf Coast University journalism students.