Among the Ruins of a Hurricane, Love Thrives

As each day passed on the beaches of Sanibel Island, Fla., Beth Ann Rueter Sharer and Jay Goad fell more deeply in love.

The two had connected on New Year’s Eve 2021 through SilverSingles, a dating site for people over 50, and on Jan. 2, 2022, had an engaging lunch at a Ruby Tuesday restaurant in Edinburgh, Ind., selected because it was midway between their homes (hers in Seymour; his in Franklin). The meeting took place shortly before Ms. Sharer was to depart on a preplanned, monthlong stay at her condominium on Sanibel, an island off the coast of Fort Myers in southwest Florida.

Mr. Goad, 64, a retired chief financial officer of Cummins, an engine distributor, was disappointed by this news. Sensing that there could be potential for a relationship, he daringly asked if he could join her. “I said, ‘This might sound weird, but I’m not doing anything and, you know, Sanibel sounds pretty nice!’”

Ms. Sharer, 66, a retired dean of the Indiana University School of Nursing, was surprised, but flattered. “I knew I liked him, but I didn’t really know him,” she said. She told him yes on the condition that he find his own place to stay. “‘I said, ‘Don’t think you’re staying with me,’” she said.

Days later, they were talking, toes in the sand, for hours upon hours, learning everything about each other as they both started to sense that something special was in the air. “We did a whole lot of nothing,” said Mr. Goad, who stayed in Sanibel for a week.

They shared stories from their lives, and showed each other photos of their grown children and their families. They had an uncanny amount in common: Both had a son and a daughter from previous 30-plus-year marriages that had ended three years earlier in divorce, and both had grandsons — she has five; he has three.

Each had canceled their subscription to SilverSingles, but matched the last day before both were scheduled to expire. “My friends call him ‘the unicorn’,” Ms. Sharer said with a laugh.

Mr. Goad ended up returning to Sanibel (in his own place, still) for the final week of Ms. Sharer’s stay. Between visits he had sent roses with a note that said, “I have seen your heart and it is beautiful. To many more walks on the beach.”

In May 2022, after the two had been steadily dating, Mr. Goad proposed. They set a wedding date for Feb. 4, 2023, and decided they wanted to marry at the Sanibel Inn, a hotel just down the road from Ms. Sharer’s condo.

Hurricane Ian had different plans.

On Sept. 28, 2022, the Category 4 storm hit Sanibel with over 150-mile-per-hour winds, sending a 12-foot storm surge across the island. Ms. Sharer’s first-floor unit facing the water at the Coquina Beach condos didn’t stand a chance. The water burst through her living room with such force that it ripped everything out, down to the studs, leaving the apartment looking gutted.

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“Everything was swept out to sea — the furniture, the refrigerator, everything,” said Mr. Goad, who, along with Ms. Sharer, was in Indiana when the hurricane struck. “It’s hard to even comprehend, but they’re all at the bottom of the ocean now.”

There wasn’t even a waterline on the condo’s walls, because the water had been higher than the rooms themselves, Ms. Sharer said. “Some of my friends saw the condo photos and said, ‘You did a nice job of cleaning that out!’ No, that was Mother Nature.”

Today, when speaking of the storm, Ms. Sharer still feels rattled and emotional. “There’s a post-traumatic stress that happens,” she said.

They still wanted a Florida beach getaway shortly after the storm, so they spent a week north of Sanibel, on Anna Maria Island, which didn’t sustain as much hurricane damage. One afternoon while strolling through town, they passed a store selling attire from the Florida brand Lulu-B, and Ms. Sharer was suddenly overcome.

“I had bought a bunch of Lulu-B clothes and kept them in the condo for when I visited, and now I didn’t have a single thing — they were all swept out, and now there are probably dolphins wearing my shirts,” she said. “I’m not materialistic, but in that moment, I just felt overwhelmed by it all.”

When she told Mr. Goad what she was feeling, he urged her into the store without hesitation, offering to pay. “He said, ‘Buy whatever you need to replace what you lost.’ He didn’t think twice,” she said. “And that meant so much to me, because it showed me that he was just a good human, and that he really got what I was going through.”

Having now experienced both hell and high water, they doubted that a February 2023 Sanibel wedding would even be physically possible. The venue where their wedding was to be held, Sanibel Inn, is today a carcass of its former self.

But Sanibel’s recovery after the storm has been progressing, if slowly: The bridges connecting it to the mainland had been damaged in multiple places, cutting off access to the island. But just a few weeks after the storm, access reopened, and the cherry-picker utility trucks soon paraded across the causeway, a joyous sign for residents that life would eventually return.

Then, in December, the ’Tween Waters Resort, across a small bridge north of Sanibel in Captiva, announced that it would be reopening, but only to contractors and residents fixing up their houses. (It has since reopened to the public.) Ms. Sharer inquired about having her wedding there. “I called them and asked, ‘Is there any chance we can do this?’” Ms. Sharer said. An exception was made.

“When I hung up the phone, I just said to Jay, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but I found a place,” Ms. Sharer said.

Today, Sanibel still looks demolished. The road toward the resort is now dotted with 10-foot tall piles of debris — couches, patio furniture, TVs, clothes — and every other car is either a big black junk-hauling truck or a contractor’s pickup.

Ms. Sharer said some people asked why, given the wreckage, she would still want to have her wedding there. “But if you love this place, this is part of showing support,” she said.

On Feb. 4, Ms. Sharer and Mr. Goad were married on the beach on Captiva Island at sunset before 57 guests. Pastor Jimmy Rodriguez of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Seymour, Ind., her hometown, officiated. Their four children, plus their spouses, served as attendants, along with their eight grandsons.

Theirs was one of the first weddings held in the area most affected by the storm — Sanibel, Captiva and Fort Myers Beach. The couple wanted their wedding to provide hope that the island would come back — and that older singles can still find love.

“At our age, in our 60s, we knew the questions to ask,” Ms. Sharer said. “Back in your 20s, everything is still new. We had a good feeling up front, but at the same time, we wanted to be deliberate.”

Mr. Goad said they found what works in a relationship because they know from experience what doesn’t. “We’re both good listeners,” he said. “If something comes up, we are good at saying, ‘Why do you feel that way?’ It’s helped us respect each other.”

And for both, integrating their families into the courtship was essential. “We were both so fried on the dating thing, that we decided before we got super serious that we wanted to meet our friends and family, because, at our age, that could be a deal killer,” Ms. Sharer said. “So I think we did it right.”

When Feb. 4, 2023

Where ’Tween Waters Island Resort & Spa, Captiva Island, Fla.

Floridian Fashion Ms. Sharer wore one of the Lulu-B dresses Mr. Goad bought her in Anna Maria Island for the rehearsal dinner. On the wedding day,  she wore an off-the-shoulder white lace gown with a mermaid bottom from Wtoo by Watters Designs. Her maid of honor and attendants wore shades of ocean blue, and she carried a bouquet of natural fibers decorated with an ivory-colored starfish.

Mr. Goad wore a natural-colored linen suit with a starfish-adorned boutonniere. Both were barefoot, and Ms. Sharer decorated her feet with delicate starfish jewelry.

A Starry Aisle In lieu of rose petals, the couple’s grandsons scattered dried-out starfish down the aisle.

Tropical Vibes The wedding party walked down the aisle to a steel drum version of the Beatles song “Here, There and Everywhere.”

What’s Next? After spending more time in Southwest Florida, the couple plans to travel and continue rebuilding their condo. They currently reside in the bride’s Seymour, Ind., home, but say they are planning on “becoming full-time snowbirds” in Sanibel.