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Sanibel Island residents return by road for the first time since Hurricane Ian

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Hurricane Ian's 150-mile-per-hour winds broke the Sanibel Causeway in five different spots, and it meant that anyone without a boat couldn't get to the island. Well, three weeks on, that has changed. As Eileen Kelley from member station WGCU reports, residents are now driving home.

EILEEN KELLEY, BYLINE: The Sanibel Causeway isn't just a 3-mile road that connects the island to the mainland. It's always been a path to a different way of life, one where giant birds, turtles and sometimes alligators roam neighborhood streets mostly made of crushed shells. Now, at the end of the causeway, there are piles of rubble for as far as the eye can see. But there's also something familiar - Lori Cucchiari’s (ph) smiling face.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Going home.

KELLEY: Cucchiari, who's a civilian with the police department, waves to islanders as they drive home for the first time since the hurricane. The causeway has now reopened to residents and disaster and recovery workers after quick emergency repairs.

Cucchiari has been a fixture at the intersection for years. It's one of the few four-way stops on the island. She usually ushers traffic during the busy tourist season. Now, it's all about the residents, and she's happy to be back and see people's smiling faces as they come home.

LORI CUCCHIARI: That's going to make me sleep well at night tonight.

KELLEY: There's also a fire truck parked at the intersection with a banner draped over it.

So this fire truck...

CUCCHIARI: Yeah, it's beautiful. They just pulled it up here, and it says it all. Welcome home - bruised but not broken.

KELLEY: While islanders' spirits may not be broken, its charm and many homes and businesses are. Luc Century, who's a well-known glass artist and resident of 38 years, drove his van across the causeway to try to salvage what he can of his waterlogged home.

LUC CENTURY: I've been inside, and it's just smashed to smithereens.

KELLEY: Outside, broken pieces of his artwork litter his yard. But amidst the shards of glass, he's able to find beauty. A fragrant joewood, a special South Florida plant, catches his eye.

CENTURY: The joewood here is blooming, and it's one of the sweetest-smelling flowers. Here, come smell it. And look at these blooms right here. It's outrageous. But look how well it's done. It's well-suited for this kind of environment. And we may be, too. You know, humans are good at recovering, and hopefully many of us will keep that spirit alive that we knew.

KELLEY: That's a common feeling among many islanders. They were initially drawn to Sanibel because of its quiet charm and wildlife. And even after Ian, they're determined to rebuild and stay.

For NPR News, I'm Eileen Kelley on Sanibel Island. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eileen Kelley