BONITA SPRINGS, Fla. — Plenty of cars drive past Bonita Beach but people aren't allowed to stop and park, seen by one Lee County Sheriff's deputy warning a couple with Illinois plates that they can't just stop on a right-of-way to watch the sunset.
The curfew hours are now cut from midnight to 6 a.m. but, as people visit Southwest Florida for the winter season, this is a beach that is still relatively quiet.
On Thursday night, about twenty people took in another spectacular sunset but they all had to walk a distance as Beach Access #1 parking lot is closed.
The damage from Hurricane Ian is apparent all through the beach neighborhoods and the most visible up and down Hickory Boulevard, where the properties on the western side of Hickory back up into the Gulf of Mexico.
Even a few blocks inland on Bonita Beach Boulevard, plenty of businesses are not coming back. Most of the bait and tackle shops didn't survive the storm but one did.
"I would say that, from our bait and tackle business, a lot of that is traffic heading right to Bonita Beach to grab a few dozen shrimp to fish with your family," said Todd Dutro, owner at Master Bait & Tackle. "With the beach being closed and no beach access parking, it’s not taking us all the way out but we’re really looking forward to that beach opening back up."
Dutro said the tourism business makes up about 30 percent of his revenue and, without people coming to park or stay in Bonita Beach, it is very different for 2023. Two nearby beaches are open, Fort Myers Beach about ten miles north and Vanderbilt Beach, about ten miles south in Collier County.
Laura Carr is on the Bonita Springs City Council and represents the third district, covering the beach and nearby neighborhoods. She is as ready to get the beach back open but also understands the work needed to rebuild so many properties and make the sand safe for all.
Carr said, even on September 29, 2022, the day after Hurricane Ian, she saw crews working. "The trucks were already clearing the road and I was there at nine in the morning and they had piles heaped up," said Carr. "They didn’t want people down there because they would get in the way and it was dangerous. It is dangerous.”
Even on a previous drone flight, on November 17, we saw massive piles of sand just outside of Doc's Beach House. For this week's visit, crews had removed all of those piles. Another small step in recovery is coming on Friday (February 3) as Coconut Jack's will open back up for the first time since the hurricane.
What was also jarring to see was the damage to the water-facing backs of those properties on Hickory.
"We had some issues with vandalism and the concern of the owners because their homes are blown open or destroyed completely," said Carr. "We wanted to protect their belongings because some of them were coming home."
Lee County makes the final call on when to reopen Bonita Beach and has not announced any dates or timetables for this.