TREASURE ISLAND — Fire Chief Tripp Barrs presented city commissioners with a vivid and scary description of how Hurricane Ian, which destroyed much of Sanibel Island, “was a dead bull’s-eye for us” and could have easily devastated Treasure Island.

Barrs said about three weeks ago Mayor Tyler Payne, City Manager Amy Davis, co-Public Works Director Stacy Boyles, and officials from other beach cities  rented a van for a fact-finding mission to Sanibel Island.

“It just devastated that community,” the fire chief said. The contingent put together a van full of donated items to take along on the trip, and “that was a big deal,” Barrs said. “They were very emotional and very excited to receive those items — toiletries, clothes, anything you could think of that you would need if your whole life was wiped out.” 

The chief said staffers in Sanibel were happy to share lessons learned. 

Just like Treasure Island, Sanibel is a barrier island, with Pine Island Sound on one side and the Gulf on the other. Officials were predicting a storm surge of 5 to 8 feet during Ian; however, marks on buildings indicate the surge actually reached to 13 feet, Barrs told commissioners at a March 7 workshop. “Pine Island Sound and the Gulf of Mexico kind of met over the top of the island and just did devastating damage.”

“It’s very similar geography to what we have,” Barrs said. “The main difference is they are more of a natural community; they pride themselves on having mangrove forests and not near as dense development as we have. We have a lot more density and therefore would have a lot more people to take care of.”

A huge challenge for Sanibel was its causeway was severely damaged. “It took 25 days to get the causeway and the bridge open,” Barrs said. “It was a herculean effort by the state Department of Transportation to get that done.”

There was no firetruck on the island for 14 days after landfall; the city evacuated all of its vehicles, as does Treasure Island. Ultimately, the city had to engineer a barge landing area both on the mainlaind and on the island to transport heavy equipment and trucks. 

Mayor Tyler Payne noted that Sanibel officials said they had never thought about how to get large vehicles back onto the island. How Treasure Island could get large vehicles back onto the island if local bridges were washed out is “something to at least have in our mind,” Payne said.

Sanibel officials learned a lot from enduring Ian, Barrs said. One unexpected challenge resulted when officials discovered that electric vehicles, which had been submerged and then dried out in garages, ran the risk of their lithium-ion batteries shorting out and catching fire spontaneously.

Barrs said Sanibel officials decided to allow the fire department to force garage doors open and drag the electric vehicle out to the end of the street, “so you have a car fire on the edge of the road instead of a structure fire. They did that 276 times. And with no fire truck on the island for a while, that makes me a little nervous,” Barrs added.

The fire chief told commissioners Sanibel officials learned that diesel generators were better than propane, as the propane burned fast and they had a hard time keeping up with supply.

After Ian passed, the immediate response was between Public Works and the fire department to provide a first push onto the island “to get debris off the streets, just so you can get through to have mutual aid search-and-rescue teams go house-to-house and check for survivors.”

There were resident reentry security issues caused by residents and businesspeople inviting contractors onto the island just after Ian passed. Residents were handing off their entry passes to contractors, who in turn were then giving the passes to subcontractors.

Federal agencies quickly came to the rescue. The Coast Guard and National Guard arrived with helicopters to snatch people off rooftops and other places, as well as to drop ready-to-eat meals and water to people who are stranded. Cellular phone carriers AT&T and Verizon provided portable cellular antenna towers to provide some service to the 

Barr said that to speed up the rebuilding process, Sanibel instituted a 5-day review process to acquire demolition permits, and 3 days on a resubmittal to remove wet drywall and moldy debris.  In addition, Sanibel instituted a 30-day building moratorium; the city issued only demolition permits, and reduced permit fees 25 percent.

Barrs said it was clear that newer homes built with mitigation features fared much better than older structures.

He said Sanibel officials reported seeing big 500- and 1,000-pound propane tanks floating down flooded streets, “just spinning and off-gassing. It’s kind of unnerving; they saw that a lot,” he added.  

Sanibel’s beach dune system is similar to Treasure Island’s and protected abutting areas from a lot worse damage. Receding flood waters created 12-foot-wide, 8-foot-deep rivers where the water receded through dune walkovers. “It was just eerie to see,” Barrs said.

One lesson learned was that Treasure Island needs more places to stack debris for long periods of time. So far the city has identified Rosselli Park, Treasure Bay and Treasure Island Park.

Sanibel officials provided daily Facebook Live posts that were the best way to get the word out with messages and information from city commissioners to residents.