SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla. (WFTS) — Wednesday marked a significant sign of progress three weeks after Hurricane Ian made landfall in Southwest Florida and carved a path of destruction many still struggle to comprehend.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the Sanibel Causeway would reopen on Wednesday, 10 days ahead of schedule.
The causeway had been restricted to power crews and first responders in recent days but is now reopened to all people living on Sanibel.
Anne-Marie Bouche, an art history professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, opened the door to her home for the first time since Hurricane Ian to discover what, if anything, was spared.
“I lay in bed, and I was dreading getting into the house because I knew it was going to be a shock. I woke up, and I was shivering thinking about it. But it is what it is, and there are people who are worse off, and I keep trying to remember that. There are people who are worse off," Bouche said.
Bouche said she would retire at the end of the year, but even before seeing the damage, she knew that after Ian, she would now need to keep working. She said she's grateful that's even an option.
"I can keep working, which is a blessing," Bouche said.
Off the coast of Ft. Myers Beach, one of the hardest hit areas, Captain Geoff Crouse said seeing the level of devastation is still surreal.
“The human mind is an interesting thing. It’ll block out really bad, so you can deal with it," Crouse said. "That’s kind of the way I feel right now, is it’s blocking out the bad. Just to be able to deal with it and help people out."
Crouse has been making trips daily to Sanibel Island for people to get eyes on their properties and assess not only the physical damage — but take in the emotional toll of what was lost and what survived Hurricane Ian.
Coming up on Sanibel Island, the lighthouse still stands tall, spared from the erosion that swallowed all that once stood before it. More than a landmark, it provided a beacon of hope for Bouche.
Stepping onto the island and off the boat, Bouche entered a world much different than the one she evacuated.
Some roads were flooded. Power lines were torn down. Homes were gutted onto the curb, with pictures, Christmas decorations and toys, lining quiet roads. The quiet was broken only by the low hum of a generator, birds chirping, or the occasional sound of more debris being tossed into a heap of junk that once helped make the house a home.
The walk to Bouche's home was more than two miles. A familiar trip home, calling out directions of where to drag two wagons next, to rescue what she could from inside, was muddied with an uneasiness about what the journey would reveal at every turn.
On the walk home, Bouche met a man who motioned with his hands and said the water "only got about here, but I mean, if you're on the ground level..."
"I am on the ground level," Bouche said.
"Sorry," the man said, as she walked off and said, "It's bad."
Coming up to the entrance of her neighborhood, Gumbo Limbo, she noticed new leaves coming in on the tree her neighborhood is named after.
“Everything was wiped out by the hurricane, and it’s two weeks later, and it’s already starting to grow again," Bouche said, pointing to the leaves.
That hope carried her in the final steps up to her home.
Walking up her driveway, covered in tree limbs, climbing over a tree, knocked down in front of her door; she put in the key and turned the lock to the front door.
"Oh my God, it’s not that bad. It’s not that bad! I can’t believe it! It’s not that bad. It didn’t get that high," Bouche said, the smell of mold, immediate. “Gosh, it only went up like three feet."
Bouche said she was expecting worse.
"Oh, it could have been so much worse. It could have been so much worse. I feel like I have to thank God because this is really amazing," Bouche said, standing in mud in her kitchen, with the ceiling hanging down. “I mean, yes, there’s a lot of mess, a lot to clean up, but this is fixable.”
The family heirlooms, her family's history — safe.
“Oh, they’re clean! The back is clean," Bouche said, checking the back of two portraits hanging on the wall for mold.
“This is my father’s great-grandfather," she said, pointing to one of the paintings. “These paintings date from, you know, middle of the 19th century.”
“This one is my father’s grandmother," she said, pointing to another.
Ahead of the visit, Bouche had talked about her father's safe and the hope to get it open before it rusted shut. Pulling out an antique key, she held her breath.
“It’s been on my mind because this was my father’s favorite possession. And he loved this safe. It was his father’s office safe," she said. “From the late 18th, early 19th century.”
The trip home, Bouche said, left her feeling optimistic.
“I know this community is very resilient. I know it’s going to come back," Bouche said.
Pulling away from land, away from the Sanibel Lighthouse, Bouche smiled.
This story was originally reported by Kylie McGivern on abcactionnews.com.