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Sanibel, Fort Myers-area businesses, beaches continue to reopen; flesh-eating bacteria no longer a problem

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 1/26/2023 Susan Glaser,
Debris pickup in early December on Sanibel Island, Florida. © Susan Glaser/ Debris pickup in early December on Sanibel Island, Florida.

FORT MYERS, Florida – Sanibel, Fort Myers Beach and other Southwest Florida communities continue to recover from Hurricane Ian, with more restaurants, hotels – and beaches – opening every week.

The Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau maintains a growing list of businesses, activities and accommodations now open in the region, including in the hardest hit communities of Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel.

Among the overnight options: the Edison Beach House and Lighthouse Resort Inn and Suites on Fort Myers Beach, the Island Inn on Sanibel and Tween Waters Island Resort on Captiva.

Most overnight options, however, come with a caveat: Construction on the property is ongoing and elevators may not be operating. (“Construction on the hotel will be continuous during business hours and guests are asked to use caution and not access construction areas at any time,” notes the website for the Edison Beach House, for example, where 12 of 24 rooms are currently available for rent.)

Barefoot on the beach on Gasparilla Island in Lee County, Florida. Officials urge caution on the beach, as hurricane-debris continues to wash up on the sand. © Susan Glaser/ Barefoot on the beach on Gasparilla Island in Lee County, Florida. Officials urge caution on the beach, as hurricane-debris continues to wash up on the sand.

Even so, it’s remarkable progress for the area, which was decimated by Ian, a category 4 storm with a monster storm surge, which hit the region on September 28.

The region’s top attraction, however – its terrific beaches – remain in a state of repair, although progress is being made in the sand, as well.

Sanibel plans to reopen beach access areas for two island beaches, Tarpon Bay and Blind Pass, in early February, with more beachfront parks expected to open in March. The island is currently selling beach parking permits to residents and property owners; nonresidents can buy them starting Jan. 31 (see

Lee County beachfront parks, meanwhile, remain closed, with no reopening date in sight.

Betsy Clayton, communications director for Lee County government, said debris in the water and buried in the sand at the water’s edge continues to pose a safety hazard.

“The county is working alongside state and federal agencies to clean and remove the debris so that beaches are safe for visitors,” she said. “Reopening Lee County government’s beach parks is a priority.”

Despite ongoing beach closures, plenty of people are accessing the sand daily on Fort Myers Beach and elsewhere.

Clayton offered this word of caution: “Beachgoers should understand that Hurricane Ian debris will continue to wash up after weather fronts move through; it’s advisable to wear beach shoes.”

Speaking of beach shoes

A reader recently questioned my decision to walk barefoot in the sand during my visit to Southwest Florida in early December. In a story last month, I acknowledged taking off my shoes and walking along the water on Gasparilla Island, a barrier island just north of Sanibel. During my visit, Gasparilla Island State Park was one of the few public beaches that had reopened.

The reader, who owns a condo in Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island, said he was concerned about Vibrio vulnificus, better known as the flesh-eating bacteria. “It is my understanding that the flooding of these locations swept large volumes of feces into the water, contributing to the rapid growth of these bacteria,” he wrote. “I have heard that there is no timeline for when the water might be safe to enter. Some people have estimated two years. It is for this reason that many of us are staying away, especially with our grandchildren and family pets.”

After I received his email, I reached out to the Florida Department of Health to find out more about the bacteria and its presence in the gulf waters after Hurricane Ian.

Lee County did experience a huge spike of Vibrio vulnificus after Ian – there were 26 cases and eight deaths in Lee County in October, according to state data. Since then, however, there has been a single case.

Jae Williams, press secretary for the state health department, said the bacteria typically forms in brackish, stagnant water and was a significant problem after Ian because of the storm’s massive surge, which created lots of standing water in low-lying areas. (Note: You can also get Vibrio vulnificus from eating improperly stored raw oysters, although that was not the cause of the spike in Lee County.)

The bacteria typically is typically not a problem in moving ocean water, Williams said, in part because salt acts as a sterilizer.

That said, he noted that he would continue to wear beach shoes on the sand, as debris continues to wash up on shore. “The primary advice right now is that people proceed with caution,” he said.

Speaking of debris

Another reader wondered where all the debris cleaned up from the hurricane would end up.

Clayton, the communications director for Lee County, said the seemingly endless amounts of hurricane debris are still being processed daily.

While Sanibel, Fort Myers Beach and other incorporated communities are coordinating their own removal processes, the county is operating a site just south of Fort Myers Beach at Lovers Key State Park.

She reports: “At the Lovers Key site, the county and its contractor move material out every day, seven days a week. When it arrives, it’s processed on-site and then trucked elsewhere. For example, vegetative debris is mulched and distributed to farms and agricultural sites. Demolition debris is compressed and delivered to certified local landfills.”

Clayton continued, “The county will close the site as soon as we are able, but right now the location remains critical to the county’s recovery efforts. Using this site (and numerous other temporary, emergency disaster management sites) helps expedite storm-debris pickup for our community because its location minimizes travel distance for debris-hauling trucks – meaning the trucks have more time for collections because they are spending less time traveling.”

She notes that the public can learn more about the collection at

Read more:

Exploring the genius of early snowbird Thomas Edison, at his winter home in Fort Myers

Exploring downtown Fort Myers, an alternative waterfront destination in Southwest Florida

With beaches near Fort Myers still closed, head to Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island for sun and sand

Overnighting in old Florida, at Pine Island’s Tarpon Lodge

Rebuilding Fort Myers Beach: Hurricane Ian prompts debate over island’s future

Sanibel Island after Ian: Causeway reopens to public Jan. 2, but recovery will take years

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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