In the minds of many, Hurricane Ian has come and gone, the world has moved on. Even as I sit here in my studio in Miami, only a 2-hour drive away from where Ian came ashore, life is, and has been much the same. Yet for the folks on Matlacha Island, life is far from normal. Matlacha is an old Florida fishing village, about 45 min north of Fort Myers Beach, which itself was wiped off the map by Ian. Matlacha is a barrier island that captured all the charm of “old Florida”. Before the storm, the island was lined with bright festive stores and bars where the old-school fisherman and shrimpers would gather; It was an old and dying way of life.
The Devastation of the Island
All this old-world charm however was nearly wiped off the map in some cases literally wiped off the map by Ian’s storm surge. Whole buildings were washed away leaving but a foundation and few boards as a remembrance of what had stood there. I visited the now devastated island on December 27th nearly 2 months after the devastating hurricane hit and the island was still a disaster. Ian totally wrecked this quaint little island putting its future in question.
Approach to Capturing the Destruction
I had worked with using my drone to light natural phenomena such as waterfalls and forests trees, landscapes, etc.. and thought it would add a bit of meaningful drama to these images. In this lighting method, I attach two Lume Cube Lights to my Mavic 2 and use the drone as my lighting platform, achieving angles and coverage which would be impossible otherwise. To capture the image I set my Canon 5ds and 16-35 to my tripod weighted down with a sandbag. This is to ensure the camera does not move as I capture the various images. Camera settings are aperture priority with about a 5.6 aperture and a 500 ISO or higher. During the shoot the exposures range from 15″ – 30″ depending on the depth of darkness I am working with. When I have the time I’ll also teather my laptop which enables me to micro-manage the shot and ensure every detail is captured just how I want it. You can see the difference in two images in this set which I have daylight and nighttime captures.
When going for a single hero shot it is important to know what you are going to shoot, so on my first pass through the island in the morning, one image stood out and I knew that would be the hero image for dusk. It brought together all the elements of a powerful image that could tell a story. The collapsed wall, next to a foundation, ceiling stringers hanging out like the bones of a washed-up whale. Then there was the cottage seemingly cantilevered out over the slab. Below that was a small blue paddle boat, totally out of place, waiting for the next young couple to take it for a spin. All these elements were reflected in the calm water with the vista reaching out, dark posts reaching out of the water, the only sign of what was once there. The daylight image was dramatic, but I knew with a bit of light the image would take on a deeper meaning, a more true expression of the sadness hiding behind these destroyed structures.
Berts Bar and Grill
The following day’s images show what is left of the iconic watering hold and show the love the island felt for this place. It is truly sad to lose spots like this and the fear is that they will be replaced with less authentic and meaningful commercial ventures. This is the fear with resides behind the rebuild of Fort Myers beach and Matlacha island, that the only people willing to take the risk will be private equity firms with deep pockets. Only the future will tell but what is for sure is that these spots are gone forever.
What struck me about photographing this washed-out venue was the sign frozen in time with the date 9/24 with a list of performers for that night. This would have been 4 days before the storm hit, the person who wrote that down could have never known it would be for the last time.
The Rest of the Island
The Road Ahead & Final Thoughts
SW Florida and for that matter, all of Florida has a difficult future ahead. Insurance rates are rising and it will not be long before getting new policies will be difficult to impossible. If no sustainable insurance solution or rejig of the system is devised, it will only be a matter of time that only those with cash to pay and the ability to self-insure will be able to access the beauty of the immediate Florida coast. The rebuilding of SW Florida, Fort Myers Beach, and Matlacha island will be a test of these new insurance waters. Will we rebuild with consideration of our fragile place within this ecosystem or will the beach be rebuilt with mega-commercial enterprises, numb to the environmental consequences?
Beyond the immediate concern of insurance, there is the larger ecological picture to frame. As I walked through Matlacha, it occurred to me that this, on some small scale, a diorama in a museum if you like, is what the collapse of civilization looks like. The inability or in some cases unwillingness to cope with a changing climate. Furthermore, when walking through these ruins you see the monumental pollution event this storm was. Gas and oil leaking from overturned boats, boats themselves forever lodged deep in the mangroves, foam floating everywhere, plastic debris of all types, and overturned AC units leaking CFC gasses into our already overheated atmosphere. Ian and SW Florida symbolizes the crossroads of overconsumption of non-sustainable forever items and the changing climate. As we continue to pour heat-trapping gasses into the atmosphere these storms get bigger and more powerful. Yet at the same time, we continue to build and consume like it’s 1950. We need an immediate systemic change in how we fundamentally operate in the world. An immediate right turn on the superhighway of our modern life.