Cayo Costa, Florida
February 21, 2017
By mid-February I was more than sick of Northeasters so I decided to fly to Florida to see how it will fare in this new era of rising seas and stronger more frequent storms. My informant for these explorations would be John Martin an old friend from high school who now lived in Punta Gorda, near Fort Meyers.
Our trip started out on Cayo Costa, a barrier beach island on Florida’s West Coast. My family has a longstanding relationship with this island. My father had brought me to the island thirty years before, and when we found the scale of a tarpon with his father’s initials on it in a nearby bar he remembered that my grandmother had been especially ticked that day because my grandfather had spent the day on Useppa Island with his fishing buddies and had returned several sheets to windward. Those were in the days when you went down to Boca Grande by train and stayed for the full season at the gracious Gasparilla Inn.
Unlike nearby Sanibel and Captiva islands no bridge or revetments had ever been built on Cayo Costa. This had left the island able to fulfill its function as a natural barrier against major storms, so people could live safely behind the barrier beaches as the Callussa Indians had done hundreds of years before. The lack of houses and infrastructure made it easier for Florida to make the island into a state park in 1971.
The wisdom of that effort had been tested when Hurricane Charley arrived on August 13, 2004. After passing over Key West, Charley as a Category 3 hurricane it had suddenly turned Northeast and increased to a category 5 hurricane before sweeping over Cayo Costa and on into Punta Gorda area where it caused $15 billion in damages and left hundreds of people living in FEMA trailers years after the storm had passed.
But Cayo Costa looked much as I remembered it 30 years before, and probably much like it looked five hundred years before that. Tendrils of fog lifted slowly along its nine miles of powdery white beaches. The Australian pine trees I remembered towering over the island had all been snapped in two. Park rangers had been vainly trying to remove the invasive trees with chain saws before Charley had done the deed for them in about two minutes.
Now copses of native sea grapes were thriving in the sunlight where the pines used to be. Wild boar that used to emerge from native Palmetto palm groves to root for mole crabs on the tidal flats and feral horses that used to nuzzle visiting boaters seemed to be gone. But alligators still lurked in the shallow lagoon just behind the swimming beach and the productive waters of the Gulf of Mexico still produced billions of shells that washed up on the deceptively quiet beaches of Cayo Costa – deceptive because they still remained ready to absorb the powers of the next hurricane. They reflected the benefit of leaving a barrier beach in its natural state to stave off future storms. And the best way to do that was to make it into a public park.
And now the park was thriving. Every day hundreds of visitors arrived in their own boats or by small ferries and would walk or be driven by volunteers in modified golf carts across the island. There they could spread out along a seven-mile long pristine beach on the Gulf of Mexico.
If you looked carefully you could see where the beach was slightly eroding, and where it had moved inland during hurricane Charlie. But you never read anything about it because no houses or streets had washed away. Now the island just remains as a pristine natural barrier island, ready to protect the mainland from the next Hurricane Charlie.
We hoped to compare Cayo Costa to a built up barrier beach on the hurricane prone Atlantic Coast of Florida. We scrutinized the map and found the perfect location 200 miles directly east. It happened to be Mar-a-Lago, President Trump’s winter white house on tony Palm Beach. We wondered if two old geezers could get in.