On a vulnerable stretch of Florida sand, residents brace - again

Two storms battered the island; Ivan may spare it. Still, residents prepare for worst - or stubbornly plan to stay.

. - After being slammed by hurricane Charley and drenched by hurricane Frances, islanders here are breathing a little more easily after weather reports suggest hurricane Ivan is no longer headed this way.

But some have their bags packed just in case. "If Ivan turns, I have a hotel room reserved 200 miles away," says John Corey. "I'm gone."

Hurricane Ivan has left at least 65 dead and thousands homeless as it raced through the Caribbean, pounding Grenada, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, and northwestern Cuba.

As the storm churns northward toward a possible landfall somewhere from the Florida panhandle to Louisiana, storm-weary Floridians are carefully monitoring its every lurch and wobble.

But perhaps no place in Florida is more vulnerable than Captiva. Situated on a three-mile-long spit of sand ranging in width from a half-mile to a couple hundred yards, the island has been hit by two hurricanes in the past month. A third storm, possibly with winds of 160 miles per hour, would probably take up where hurricane Charley's 140-mile-per-hour winds left off, destroying already-damaged homes.

Last week, meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center issued an early projection that hurricane Ivan would plow through the Florida Keys and then make landfall at or near Captiva, just as hurricane Charley had done a month earlier. The projection was enough to spark a massive evacuation of the Keys, and a statewide run on plywood, gasoline, water, milk, bread, and other essentials.

The fear and anxiety that spread across much of Florida has receded somewhat as the storm's projected path moved westward. But Ivan remains the most discussed topic in a state transfixed by television radar images of spiraling storms.

"I am a positive-thinking person and I have been saying for a week it is not going to hit us because God only throws at you what you can handle, and everyone here is at the breaking point. So it isn't coming," says Heather Silbar-Rice, a waitress at the KeyLime Bistro, a local restaurant that has reopened. She notes that if the storm does head for Captiva Island she plans to seek refuge in a hotel in Orlando. "But it is not going to come," she insists.

Others here say that if the storm turns in their direction, they'll ride it out just as they did with Charley. Some 20 of Captiva's 300 year-round residents ignored evacuation orders for the earlier storm and stayed in their homes.

"We are not worried about Ivan at all," says Chuck Bruning, whose wife's family has lived on the island since 1938. "We are going out for dinner tonight and it's just going to be another day, another storm." He adds: "If you are going to live here you have to accept that hurricanes happen."

Mr. Bruning notes that the storm with his name, Charley, arrived on August 13 - his 54th wedding anniversary. He and wife, Ann, "celebrated" by watching as much of the lush vegetation around their three homes was snapped off, twisted, or uprooted. They lost beloved avocado and mango trees. But only one of their homes was damaged.

Captiva residents have been working nonstop to clean up and repair storm damage since hurricane Charley made a surprise turn to the northeast and slammed ashore here before racing up Charlotte Harbor toward Punta Gorda.

The storm had been forecast to make landfall near Tampa with top winds of 110 miles per hour. Instead, it came here with 140 mile-per-hour sustained winds and gusts strong enough to blast shingles off roofs and snap 50-foot-tall pines.

Three weeks later, hurricane Frances arrived, blowing tarps off damaged roofs and dumping heavy rains; ruining carpets, furniture, and other possessions that had been salvaged from hurricane Charley.

Although hard hit by Charley, Captiva's historic district appears to have survived without major structural damage. Two well-known restaurants, The Bubble Room and the Mucky Duck both are intact, although they have not yet reopened. The KeyLime Bistro on Andy Rosse Lane has been open for the past week, in part because owner Sandy Stilwell never left the island.

Ms. Stilwell says she'll stay again, if necessary. "I saw what happened last time: The City of Sanibel [an island south of Captiva] didn't allow people over the bridge and back to their homes."

The days immediately following the storm were critical for making quick repairs to her seven businesses, she says. "I've replaced four roofs," she says, though she has yet to receive insurance money.

Hardest hit on Captiva has been South Seas Plantation, a resort and condominium community at the island's north end. Most buildings lost shingles and some had windows blown out. Island residents describe the scene as a war zone, with massive piles of garbage and soaked furnishings in the parking lots.

But the most obvious loss here is the destruction of nearly all the Australian pines that created a shady, relaxed atmosphere and made the island a popular getaway. Captiva is still laid back - but the absence of the towering pines makes it a little more bright and airy, too.

While residents are relieved to be out of a hurricane bulls-eye, they're concerned about those in the Ivan's path. "It looks like a biggie, and my heart is out to whoever is on the receiving end," says Dave Jensen, who runs Jensen's Twin Palm Cottages.

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