On Wednesday (today), scores of Sanibel islanders returned for the first time since Hurricane Ian, but many Fort Myers Beach residents are anxiously waiting their chance.
Officials limited access to both storm-ravaged islands in the aftermath, but after Sanibel residents objected, city leaders agreed to lift what had been a 24-hour curfew and begin allowing them to visit from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. starting Wednesday (today).
Those from Fort Myers Beach remain locked out.
Lee County Sheriff Office deputies are posted at the foot of the Matanzas Pass bridge turning everyone away from the island.
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The policy has drawn criticism from some islanders, especially after Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno tweeted Saturday that beach residents would be allowed back. “Only residents with identification are being allowed on Fort Myers beach,” he wrote.
Less than two hours later, however, the Fort Myers Beach fire department said there’d be no access the following week: “This closure provides crews time to complete necessary search and rescue operations."
On Monday, Sheriff Marceno said the county’s Emergency Operations Center “made a decision with Fort Myers Beach to close the beach to residents (because) we need to access what were roads and now rubble. We need to be able to get that equipment in to make certain that we are not only rescuing but preserving crime scenes.
"I know there are a lot of people that are upset by that, but we have to make certain that we collectively as a team do it right the first time because we get one chance. Our focus is on life saving, law enforcement and most important, maintaining law and order in the county.”
Some Fort Myers Beach residents were upset at the response. Pete Crumpacker rode out the storm with his wife, Tina and cat, Tilley, by “busting through ceiling drywall to access (a) crawl space to breathe while floating on refrigerator,” he wrote in response to a reporter’s question on Facebook. “We waited ‘til daybreak and limped our way to (the) bridge unassisted.”
As they left the island, he saw no law enforcement, he said, but later, when he tried to return, deputies stopped him. “What about my constitutional rights?” he asked.
Don’t blame law enforcement for the difference in island access, says sheriff’s office spokeswoman Anita Iriarte. “The decision to restrict access was made by the Fort Myers Beach Fire District and the Town of Fort Myers Beach,” she wrote in an email.
“We assist with closure,” but the decision wasn’t made by her office. Likewise, Sanibel made its own decision.
Requests for comment to both municipalities were not immediately answered.
Some residents like Pete Minns, a timeshare owner on the south end who retired from a utility company in Wisconsin, are content to let the process take as much time as necessary.
"There are so many crews in the area there but they can't get onto the island because of damage to the bridges ... If you've ever seen a utility bucket truck you know they're not small. You can't just put them on a boat. You need a really big boat/barge just for one truck. It's a process. Let the FEMA and others do their search and rescue or recovery first."
– USA Today Network reporters Dustin Levy and Dan Glaun contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Hurricane Ian: Sanibel residents can return, but not Fort Myers Beach