Hurricane Ian destroyed several portions of the Sanibel Causeway, the series of bridges that connects mainland Florida to Sanibel Island — which is home to some 6,500 people and located just south of where the storm made landfall.
Officials have characterized the extent of the damage as beyond simple repairs.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis confirmed at a Thursday morning briefing that the Sanibel Causeway is one of at least two bridges (along with the bridge that connects to Pine Island) that are "impassable" and will "require structural rebuilds."
He said on Friday that the three-mile causeway "had breaks in multiple parts of it."
"It was not where the water and the pylons were, those held up very well," he said at a Friday morning briefing. "It was where you had some on the sandbar, and that got washed out from underneath."
Lee County had ordered people on the island to evacuate before the storm hit, though not everyone did. Sanibel Mayor Holly Smith said Thursday that the occupants of about 200 homes had stayed behind, and that authorities had already confirmed two injuries and 12 deaths on Sanibel.
It appears that other residents are effectively stranded on the island, either because they declined evacuation offers by rescue crews or because they are unaccounted for.
DeSantis said that same day that an unspecified number of people had been safely brought off the island and that rescue efforts by the U.S. Coast Guard, local law enforcement and state teams were ongoing. The Coast Guard has shared photos of crews airlifting people from flooded parts of the island.
Officials are running barges in order to ferry supplies and heavier equipment to the island (whereas emergency responders had initially been traveling lighter and via air), DeSantis said on Friday.
Smith had requested barge service for short-term recovery, as well as "possibly for the long-term for island access due to the condition of the causeway."
Smith is urging residents to provide authorities with the names and addresses of any loved ones who may have remained on the island, saying "our first priority is to get those who are stranded to safety" and account for missing people.
No electric customers on Sanibel Island had power as of an 11 a.m. ET Friday morning update from the Lee County Electric Cooperative.
Jarring images of the broken causeway circulated fast
At least three sections of the causeway were washed away by the storm surge, CNN affiliates WBBH and WPLG report, cutting the Sanibel and Captiva islands off from the rest of the state.
Damage to the causeway was first reported in the early hours of Thursday morning by local journalists, who shared photos of the bridge with pieces missing.
Among them were Tampa Bay Times reporter Zachary Sampson and photojournalist Douglas Clifford, who ventured out of their Fort Myers hotel room in the early hours of Thursday morning to check on the damage and publish eyewitness accounts on the Times' website.
In a dispatch at 2 a.m. ET, they reported that the half-mile of road leading to the Sanibel Causeway was impassable.
"The pavement is folded up like an accordion, ripped to ribbons by a powerful storm surge," they wrote. "Nearby, a spiral staircase was deposited in the brush next to a white pickup. The storm flung a boat trailer and other debris, too."
They describe seeing sheets of sand strewn across the pavement and watching around 1:30 a.m. as two cars tried unsuccessfully to access the island. One was full of young men who were trying to reach a friend, they added.
At 4:15 a.m., the journalists confirmed that a section of the causeway had been wiped out by the storm:
"An alarm bleats endlessly at the tollbooth for the Sanibel Causeway. Step just beyond it, and the road soon gives way. Where the bridge rises from the mainland toward the island, one of the first sections of the span has disappeared. Crumbled pavement lies near the water's edge. The rest of the bridge stretches forward, unreachable."