At least three sections of the Sanibel Causeway were washed away by storm surge from Hurricane Ian, according to video from CNN affiliates WBBH and WPLG, severing the Sanibel and Captiva islands’ only connection to Florida’s mainland.
The videos from the causeway show two portions of the ramp to both bridges washed away, as well as a stretch of roadway that crossed an island in the middle of the causeway.
A portion of the Sanibel Causeway Bridge “was damaged/washed out,” Lieutenant Gregory S. Bueno with the Public Affairs Division of Florida Highway Patrol told CNN. All lanes of the bridge are currently closed and the severity of the closure is listed as “major,” according to Florida 511.
“Sanibel is destruction,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a news conference Thursday afternoon, adding the area was hit with a “biblical storm surge.”
“It washed away roads, it washed away structures that were not new and could withstand that,” he said, adding that while many people evacuated, some people had been brought off the island safely. Air operations continue, the governor said, since the area is inaccessible by ground.
The causeway will be rebuilt, DeSantis said. “But that’s not something that will happen overnight.”
Rescue teams were being transported by helicopter to the islands, where they went door-to-door checking on residents, Florida’s State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Thursday evening. Florida’s National Guard was assisting in those transportation efforts, Patronis added.
Law enforcement and personnel from the Lee County Department of Transportation were also on scene at the causeway, officials said Thursday morning, and bridge inspectors were working to asses all bridges in Lee County. Residents are advised to remain off the roads “unless absolutely necessary.”
The county, which includes Fort Myers in addition to Sanibel and Captiva islands and Cape Coral, suffered “catastrophic damage” from the storm, officials said in their update, noting that 98% of the county remains without power.
Urban search and rescue crews from local agencies are “actively engaged in search and rescue efforts,” with federal search and rescue teams being deployed. In the meantime, the 15 shelters opened prior to the storm’s arrival remain open.
Asked if rescues had been conducted on Sanibel Island, Rear Admiral Brendan McPherson, commander of the US Coat Guard’s Seventh District, said the Coast Guard had “been out to that area and we’re looking.”
“In some cases, we’ve found people that are safe and they’ve waved us off and they didn’t need any rescue,” McPherson told CNN. “But in other cases, we are certainly looking at that area.”
An estimated 6,400 people lived in the City of Sanibel as of April 2021, per the US Census Bureau. The islands are home to a number of hotels and resorts, as their beaches draw a significant amount of tourists each year.
A 2017 City of Sanibel count measured annual bridge traffic over the causeway at over 3 million vehicles.