If you want some reassurance that Old Florida survived Hurricane Ian, take a trip to Cabbage Key. There you’ll find warm hospitality and a very welcoming vibe among the islanders. After all, the locals on Cabbage Key are the staff and family that run the historic inn.
At 112 acres, the island is accessible only by boat and is one of the smallest inhabited ones in Pine Island Sound. Cabbage Key lies to the west of the undeveloped barrier island of Cayo Costa. That’s where Ian finally touched shore with sustained winds of 150 mph on Sept. 28, 2022.
“Landfall was about a mile and a half from us,” says Cabbage Key manager Scott Lepson. “We were in the eye for at least an hour.” At 33-foot elevation, atop a Calusa shell midden, the 1926 structure was built to endure and accommodate the Southwest Florida climate. In fact, the inn resumed its long tradition of welcoming boaters by serving food and drinks within 18 days after the storm.
Parallels to Hurricane Charley
Early Monday afternoon the week Ian came barreling towards the Southwest Florida coast, the staff followed the lead of Rob and Phyliss Wells, who bought the property in 1976 and have lived on island ever since.
“When Mrs. Wells let us know they were evacuating, we knew it was best for all of us. They saw way too many parallels with Hurricane Charley,” said Mr. Lepson.
Having lived on Cabbage Key for the past 47 years, the Wells family thought Hurricane Charley in 2004 would be the worst they’d ever see.
“We were in the bullseye again,” said Rob Wells, Sr. “With Charley, we lost our tall coconut palms brought here in the twenties from a plantation on Jamaica. With Ian, we got a really good haircut.”
With both hurricanes, landfall was very close to the storied island, which was originally developed by the Rinehart family in 1926. But, with Ian, came the added complication of the bridge to Pine Island being destroyed, which made getting post-storm hurricane relief supplies to Cabbage Key more challenging.
Typically a short boat ride from Pineland/Bokeelia at the northern tip of Pine Island, access from the mainland now was a different story.
Fishermen to the rescue
When you ask Bartow-based Rob Kendrick what prompted him and a bunch of his Polk and Hardee County friends to gather generators, fuel, food and necessities for the staff and family at Cabbage Key, the fifth-generation Floridian radiates purpose.
“If you can, you should. Me and my fishing buddies, we know how to navigate those waters, and we had the ability to get the supplies and had boats that could carry 100-gallon fuel tanks and generators,” said Mr. Kendrick, who first fished the waters as a boy in the 1990s. For the last 20 years, Cabbage Key has become well-established as his go-to happy place.
“They’re just great people — the staff, the Wells family. They are so welcoming to us fishermen. We can come in right off the water, all dirty from fishing and they treat us like family. We just felt like giving back,” he said. After helping friends and family in central Florida get generator power and supplies, Kendrick and his buddies gathered what the folks at Cabbage Key asked for and headed to Burnt Store Marina to launch their boats.
“First, we boated over to drop off supplies on Pine Island to friends who needed help, and then we headed out to Cabbage,” he said. “We just wanted to give back to these islands that we visit as much as we can from late winter to early summer.”
Back up and running
When Mr. Kendrick and his fishing buddies arrived at Cabbage Key’s ravaged docks with five boats, each carrying a generator, they put post-Ian recovery into turbo gear.
“We couldn’t believe it. Only four days after the storm and here are five boats pulling up with what we needed to get powered up and with more fuel, water, food and supplies than we asked for,” said Mr. Lepson. “It made a huge difference in our recovery efforts.”
For Mr. Kendrick, it was deeply heart-warming to help.
“I got chills when I saw it, and it was still there,” he said. “I promise you that as good as it made them feel that we helped out, it made me feel even better to do what we could.”
Over the next week, they would return two more times with supplies and parts to fix the inn’s 40-year-old generator that had been overheating.
Because the island was in the 40-mile-wide eye of the storm rather the eyewall, the historic inn, cottages, water tower and several staff homes as well as the Wells family home had survived the storm.
“Overall, we were virtually unscathed. Miraculously, we did not have any catastrophic damage at all,” said Mr. Lepson. “One staff home lost part of its metal roof, and we had massive loss of vegetation.”
“We were amazed how well we did with our buildings,” he said. Luckily, the staff had been doing their typical end-of-September landscape trimming before the storm and had critical equipment on island.
“We had a mulcher and a front-end loader, and we had already trimmed back quite a bit since it’s our slowest time of year,” he said. “We had about eight of us back on island within days, and everyone did whatever was needed. Job descriptions no longer mattered.”
During the next week and a half, before they opened to boaters again on Oct. 15, the staff grew closer than ever, with most living at the inn to access power.
“We had no A/C, no cable or internet, just the TV in the bar with the antenna,” said Mr. Lepson. “And, our cook wasn’t back until Oct. 14, so we were cooking our own food. When you talk about culture of a business, that made ours even more of a family feel than ever.”
Concern of customers
Through the storm and after, devoted regulars and fans of Cabbage Key were reaching out fearing the worst. With landfall so close by and all the media images and video of the devastation on Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel and Matlacha, where winds and storm surge of up to 15 feet literally washed away old Florida cottages, many customers were deeply concerned.
“We started doing daily Facebook updates to let people know we were still here. But, we’re still getting calls daily from people who are surprised when we answer,” he added.
By Oct. 20, the power was back on and the inn opened back up fully with its first overnight guest on Oct. 29 — just over a month after the hurricane.
The commercial dock survived the storm, while the large T-dock which accommodates more than 40 boats, was destroyed. The main stretch of the T-dock was already rebuilt by Christmastime, and the top stretch is expected to be completed soon.
“We got an emergency permit to rebuild the dock in its exact footprint,” said Mr. Lepson.
Favorite place on earth
For both Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2022, Fort Myers residents Doug and Memi Whitehead spent three nights on Cabbage Key. Having been stationed overseas with the U.S. Army, they are speaking from experience when they sing its praises.
“It is one of our favorite places on the entire planet,” said Ms. Whitehead. “Riding over on the ferry, stress just evaporates. And, what really makes it special are the people. Everyone is so genuine and sincere.”
Visit cabbagekey.com to learn more about planning a visit to the historic inn.
This article by Barbara Linstrom originally appeared in the Fort Myers section of floridaweekly.com