An Exclusive Extract from Florida’s Marco Island

A popular Florida tourist destination, Marco Island has seen its share of hardships over the years. In this introduction to their new book Marco Island, Austin Bell and Kaitlin Romey explore some of the island’s recent history.

It is easy to understand what first-time visitors to Marco Island find alluring about the sun-soaked tropical island in Florida’s Gulf of Mexico. Googling Marco Island yields a dazzling array of idyllic images awash in tropical blues, greens, and whites. The sugar-sand beach, ocean breezes, swaying palm trees, and balmy temperatures have been drawing visitors to Marco Island’s shores for decades.
Yet there is more to Marco Island than first meets the eye. Steeped in a remarkable history with residents bound by a common sense of identity, civic duty, and community pride, Marco Island is the kind of place that not only draws people to its shores but also convinces them to put down roots. Even so, life on a six-by-four-mile barrier island is not always lived without adversity. Perhaps what is most remarkable about Marco Island is the way in which its people have met and overcome a variety of challenges during the past 50 years.

A postcard showing the beach at Marco Island. Reprinted from Marco Island by Austin J. Bell, Kaitlin Romey, and the Marco Island Historical Society (pg. 52, Arcadia Publishing, 2018).On September 10, 2017, the unthinkable unfolded on Marco Island. Hurricane Irma, once a Category 5 hurricane in the Caribbean and one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes ever observed, made a beeline for the 23-square-mile island. It had been 12 years since Hurricane Wilma, Marco Island’s last major hurricane, and many newcomers had yet to experience anything remotely resembling Irma. Mandatory evacuations went into effect, leaving most of the island empty, with those choosing to stay hunkered down and preparing for the worst. Meteorologists predicted a 10- to 15-foot storm surge, and Marco Island became ground zero for an evolving national news story.
At about 2:30 p.m., Hurricane Irma made landfall at Marco Island as a Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of 115 miles per hour. The Marco Island Police Department reported a wind gust of 130 miles per hour. The strong winds blew water out into the Gulf of Mexico, creating unusual sights and record low-water readings before the storm surge brought it all back (and then some) in a hurry. Mercifully, the dire surge predictions did not hold true, as the storm weakened just prior to arrival. In Goodland, a storm surge tide sensor measured a water level greater than seven feet, and the rest of Marco Island saw only three- to five-foot inundation above ground level.
Nevertheless, the destruction was extensive. Most of the buildings in nearby Everglades City suffered major damage. At least 88 buildings were destroyed in Collier County, and another 1,500 were badly damaged. There was heavy tree and power-pole damage on Marco Island, and nearly every roof suffered at least some harm. The island is still recovering as of this writing, and it will take years for the physical scars of the storm to completely disappear, barring another hurricane of similar magnitude. What many people will remember about Hurricane Irma, though, including the authors, is the way in which the community pulled together during and after the storm.

Damage caused by Hurricane Irma in 2017. Reprinted from Marco Island by Austin J. Bell, Kaitlin Romey, and the Marco Island Historical Society (pg. 95, Arcadia Publishing, 2018).Countless people volunteered their time, energy, and money to the recovery efforts. Although many were dealing with their own problems large and small, they still pitched in to help their friends and neighbors. The storm even led to the formation of the Marco Patriots, a group of volunteer civilians that provided information and updates during and immediately after the storm, eventually raising almost $150,000 to aid hurricane relief. Marco Island was open for business again only months after the storm, just in time for its annual season.
After Hurricane Irma, the sense of community and pride in Marco Island was arguably as high as it had ever been. What was it about this place that made its people respond in the way that they did? How did so many generous and compassionate individuals find their way to Marco Island? From where did this strong sense of community originate? There are undoubtedly many answers to these questions, most of which lie in the individuals and their personal histories, but many are also rooted in decisions made more than 50 years ago, when the dream of developing Marco Island into a self-sufficient island community was still in its infancy.
In 1962, Florida’s “Famous Mackle Brothers,” a trio of real estate developers from Miami, visited Marco Island at the request of its then-majority landowners. The Mackles could not believe what they saw: a sparsely populated and pristine island paradise that could one day be home to thousands. Under the auspices of the Deltona Corporation, the Mackles ambitiously developed the island between 1964 and 1976, dramatically reshaping it through a dredge-and-fill process that created miles of waterfront property. Ultimately halted by regulations stemming from a growing environmental movement in the United States, the Mackles’ impact on Marco Island was lasting, transformational, and irreversible.
In the years since, Marco Island has learned to stand on its own two feet, electing to incorporate as a city on August 28, 1997. With that decision came jurisdiction over its own roads, bridge, storm drainage, utilities, and parks. Cultural attractions have sprung up on the island, thanks largely to private fundraising efforts, including the Marco Island Center for the Arts in 2002 and the Marco Island Historical Museum in 2010. Businesses such as the Hilton and J.W. Marriott hotels, important contributors to Marco Island’s economy, have undergone major renovations. The island was even touted as TripAdvisor’s No. 1 island in the United States and No. 4 in the world in 2014.

A view of residential Marco Island today. Reprinted from Marco Island by Austin J. Bell, Kaitlin Romey, and the Marco Island Historical Society, courtesy of Austin Bell (pg. 87, Arcadia Publishing, 2018).Today, the city of Marco Island is a popular international tourist destination home to more than 16,000 residents. During the season, which is typically at its peak between December and March, the island’s population swells to over 40,000 people. Most of Marco Island’s year-round economy is sustained by these crucial months. As more new people continue to visit Marco Island, the Marco Island Historical Society will continue to educate and inspire an appreciation for its storied history. At the Marco Island Historical Museum, the island’s history is brought to life by award-winning exhibits and state-of-the-art collections preservation.
This book explores a period of dramatic transformation and intense development on Marco Island, from 1962 to present. From the Mackles’ original vision for the island to Hurricane Irma, this pictorial history outlines the events and milestones in between, each contributing in some way to what it means today to be a Marco Islander.