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Relief, Resolve for Those Who Fled Florida Barrier Islands

Sanibel survives Charley 'very well,' a resident says. Nearby Captiva isn't so lucky. Tourism officials breathe easier.

August 19, 2004|John-Thor Dahlburg and Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writers

SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla. — This crescent of sand bathed by the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico is one of Florida's mythic destinations, a magnet for bird-watchers, seashell gatherers and the sun-starved. On Wednesday, islanders who fled as a hurricane approached were allowed back for the first time, and many came with their hearts in their throats.

At her home on South Yachtsman Drive, Mary Wolf rushed indoors to see whether the wooden canoe handcrafted by her late husband was intact. It was. The other damage caused by Hurricane Charley, including a neighbor's Norfolk pine tree that had landed in her pool, was a minor nuisance.

"We came through this very well," the 76-year-old retired nurse said. "If it hadn't made that little wobble at the end, it would have been different."

The barrier island to the north did not fare as well. Only half a mile wide, Captiva caught the full brunt of the storm that roared across Florida on Friday, bringing death and devastation with it. A tour of the 5-mile-long island by boat six days after the hurricane found numerous yachts beached in yards, docks a shambles and roofs missing from scores of homes and vacation properties.

So many Australian pines and giant ficus trees had toppled onto Captiva's only north-south road that the high green jumble reminded resident Louise Alt of the threatening forest in "The Wizard of Oz." Farther up the coast, the island of North Captiva has a brand new channel, about 250 yards wide, into the gulf. Charley literally cut the island in two.

For Florida tourism as a whole, however, the verdict after the hurricane seems to be the same as the one uttered by Wolf about her home: It could have been much, much worse. Abraham Pizam, dean of the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University in Central Florida in Orlando, said the storm's effect on what has grown to be a $51-billion-a-year industry should be negligible.

"The hurricane luckily did not have a major impact on Central Florida, which is a major tourist destination. It hit hard in places like Punta Gorda, which is not laden with a lot of tourist attractions," Pizam said. Moreover, he said, the storm struck when many out-of-state tourists had already ended their vacations and returned home for the start of the school year.

On Wednesday, officials put the death toll attributed to Florida's most devastating hurricane in more than a decade at 22, with one of the most recent casualties reported to be an 86-year-old man who fell in a hotel after being evacuated from his home. More than 439,000 people in the state remained without power, and nearly 100,000 were still without telephone service. As of Wednesday, 2,684 people were living in shelters.

Although damage totals are not yet known, the Insurance Information Institute said Wednesday that insurers would likely pay out an estimated $7.4 billion in claims for damage to homes, businesses, cars and other personal possessions.

At this point, said Tom Flanagan, spokesman for Visit Florida, a public-private partnership that promotes tourism, no one really knows how much Charley will cost the state in lost tourist dollars. But to counteract the effect of media coverage of the hurricane, Visit Florida's executive committee -- after a conference call with Gov. Jeb Bush -- decided to spend $119,000 on image repair, Flanagan said.

"It's to counter the perception that the entire state is devastated," he said. Visit Florida hopes vacationing Americans get the message: Charley didn't damage most of the Sunshine State's Atlantic and Panhandle resorts or Central Florida's attractions. The Florida Keys reopened to visitors the day after the hurricane, as did Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld.

Initial reports of hurricane damage on Sanibel, roughly 12 miles long and four miles wide, where 6,000 people live year-round, sounded apocalyptic. But a committee formed to check every building on the island found that although many homes had been damaged, most of the damage was minor.

"Not a single building had to be condemned," said local architect Joe St. Cyr, a committee member, who had a ficus tree fall on his boat. That's not to say that Sanibel residents won't have to pay many millions of dollars for repairs to such properties as the seaside Casa Ybel, a timeshare complex that lost some of its roofs. Roofers, people who construct aluminum pool enclosures, tree surgeons, electricians and many other tradesmen have months of work ahead of them on Sanibel, St. Cyr said.

Relief, though, seemed to be the prevailing emotion Wednesday, as well as some irritation that the Sanibel City Council, which had cited reasons of public safety, barred property owners from returning to the island for so many days.

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