Historic Boca Grande, an exclusive vacation destination for presidents, movie stars and old money elite, suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Ian, but the island's infrastructure, along with most buildings and landmarks, largely is intact and should be able to recover, according to those surveying the storm's aftermath.
The only agency conducting recovery efforts on the island is the 20-person Boca Grande Fire Department, which has begun going door-to-door looking for survivors and assessing the damage.
As of Friday afternoon, Boca Grande Fire Lieutenant Lee Cooper said there were no deaths on the island and no buildings were completely destroyed other than a restaurant that burned down, but the Fire Department was only 10% through its detailed survey.
The bridge to Boca Grande weathered the storm without problems, providing access to the island, although as of Friday there still was a significant amount of standing water on the main road, starting at the base of the bridge.
A reporter visiting the island wasn't able to reach the south end where all of the landmarks are located because of the flooded road, but spoke with Cooper at the base of the bridge on the island's north end and with Ken and Barb Burnette in their heavily damaged condo perched along the causeway connecting Boca Grande to the mainland. Ken Burnette is president of the condominium association for the Boca Grande North condo complex.
Both Cooper and the Burnettes had visited the south end of the island and described the damage as severe but not as bad as other Lee County coastal communities such as Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach, where storm surge scoured the landscape.
“Everything that you would think of (as) Boca Grande is still there," Cooper said.
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Historic buildings such as the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse built in 1890 and the Gasparilla Inn & Club – which was built in 1911 and has hosted President George H.W. Bush, President George W. Bush, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Katharine Hepburn and many other famous people – survived Hurricane Ian, according to Cooper.
"There's damage there," Burnette said of the Inn. "Now how extensive it is, we don't know."
Cooper didn't think the Inn or Lighthouse sustained major damage.
The Gasparilla Inn owners have a separate bakery that was damaged when the island's cell phone tower collapsed and fell on it. The cell tower collapse is the most notable infrastructure damage on the island, Cooper said. All of the island's roads survived Ian.
“The integrity of the actual structures of the roads are fine, bridges are fine," Cooper said.
The South Beach Bar & Grille, a popular beachfront restaurant on the south end of the island, burned to the ground and was totally destroyed during the storm. Pictures show all that remains is the foundation and charred debris.
The structure already was destroyed by the time firefighters arrived on the scene after the storm, Cooper said. They didn't have any water to fight the fire anyway. The island has no water, electricity or cell phone service.
Firefighters are communicating with each other through radios.
"Basically we’re not in contact with the rest of the world," Cooper said.
Boca Grande appears to have suffered a significant storm surge, but not at the catastrophic level seen in some communities further south.
"We're not talking Fort Myers Beach," Cooper said.
Burnette spoke to a storm chaser who traveled from Chicago to document Ian, weathering the hurricane in a car parked on the causeway. The storm chaser said the water was knee deep on the causeway road right after the storm and chest deep on other parts of the road.
"It came all the way across the road," Burnette said of the water.
It's not clear if the storm surge impacted any beachfront properties.
Some buildings were severely damaged by Ian's heavy winds, though.
At least four of the seven condo buildings in the Burnettes' complex have major roof damage, with sections where the shingles and underlying plywood completely ripped off, leaving the roof trusses visible.
The Burnettes have owned their condo for 10 years.
They used to live in Fort Lauderdale and used the Boca Grande condo as a weekend getaway. With their children now grown and moved out, they decided to sell their Fort Lauderdale house and move to the Boca Grande condo full-time.
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Ken Burnette said they fell in love with the island's "Old Florida charm."
They completely renovated their condo before moving in a few months ago. Now they're wondering if they can salvage all the hard work that went into getting the place exactly how they wanted it.
Sitting Friday in the condo, which was renovated in a modern style with immaculate, high-end fixtures and furnishings, they looked around and wondered about the road ahead. The damage wasn't especially noticeable on the inside at first glance, but it was everywhere.
The Burnettes have one condo unit above them. Rainwater poured through the building's damaged roof into that top-floor unit and was leaking down the walls of the Burnettes' condo.
When they returned home Thursday after evacuating to North Port, there was about six inches of water on the Burnettes' floor. Water still covered part of the floor Friday and there was a musty smell in the condo. Other condo units had sections of outer walls that came off.
“This is going to be a massive undertaking when it comes to how do we repair all of this?” Ken Burnette said.
As condo association president, he is preparing to take the lead on a long rebuilding process that starts with having an engineer evaluate the buildings to see "are they livable? What will it take to make them livable?"
"It’s just, it’s a nightmare," Burnette said.
Yet Burnette believes Boca Grande will recover and return to its former glory as one of the most charming and exclusive of Florida's island communities.
Boca Grande was founded as a port community for shipping phosphate, which is used for fertilizer, mined along the Peace River. Work began in 1905 to extend a railroad to the island. It later became popular with wealthy fishermen because of its status as one of the best places to hook tarpon, a prized game fish.
The Bush family frequented the island. Fox News host Tucker Carlson has a home there, as do Clemson University football coach Dabo Swinney and University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban.
George H.W. Bush was vacationing in Boca Grande in 2006 when former President Gerald Ford died. Bush gave a press conference on the steps of the Gasparilla Inn with his son, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, to discuss Ford, the man who appointed him director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Based on what Burnette has seen, his condo complex was hit the hardest. He said some of the buildings in his complex may not be livable but “downtown and a lot of the other areas are going to be just fine.”
Boca Grande is just to the north, across the Boca Grande Pass, of where Ian made landfall on the island of Cayo Costa. It experienced some of the strongest winds.
“The good news in all of this is that despite the power of what went through, the island doesn’t need to rebuild, it just needs to repair, it isn’t that bad," Burnette said, adding: "Given what just went through here, I'm grateful."
While acknowledging that "everybody's got some work to do," Burnette said that "Boca Grande itself, I think it's ok."
Follow Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Historic Boca Grande Florida slammed, but not destroyed, by Hurricane Ian