Mother Nature is in Charge

By Amy Bentley

dome house in 1981

Dome home built by oil producer Bob Lee in 1981 on Cape Romano, just south of Marco Island (Adam Eastland/Alamy Stock Photo).

Forty years ago, a retired oilman from Tennessee named Bob Lee built a futuristic-looking concrete dome house near the shore of a remote island in Southwest Florida in the Ten Thousand Islands, south of Marco Island. The unique dome house at Cape Romano overlooked a beautiful island chain dotted with thousands of mangrove-covered islands. In recent years, this home’s half-submerged, wrecked remains became a popular tourist attraction, loved by shelling enthusiasts, fishermen, and boaters alike.

florida dome house in water 2004

Romano Dome House in Florida viewed from an airplane, December 31, 2004 (Obsession911).

Last year, my husband and I took a day trip boating around the Ten Thousand Islands with a local tour company. We stopped on a few islands to hunt for shells and I finally got to see what’s left of the infamous Cape Romano Dome House, which at the time was half-submerged in the Gulf of Mexico, several hundred yards from the shore. Four of the original six interconnecting domes were visible in the water then. Local jet skiers were having a blast riding around the famous landmark and taking pictures. I remember as a kid growing up seeing a photo of this odd structure and wondering what it was, and why anyone would build it in the ocean. What did I know.

cape romano dome house underwater

Cape Romano Dome House partially submerged (Amy Bentley, Sarah Rosenbaum). 

Bob Lee was a dreamer and an amateur inventor with progressive building ideas. His supposedly hurricane-proof house consisted of six interconnected, large concrete domes painted bright white. The 2,400-square-foot, three-bedroom house was self-sustaining, with a rainwater cistern system and solar power. Lee, his wife, and kids, and later a different family, enjoyed living in the home.

remains of domed house sticking out of the water

Dome House in the water (Sarah Rosenbaum, SunflowerMomma). 

Then Mother Nature showed who’s the boss.

hurricane ian from satellite

Satellite image from NOAA shows Hurricane Ian approaching Florida on Sept. 28, 2022, at 10:41 am ET (NASA/GOES-16).

Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm, slammed Florida in 1992. The exteriors of the domes were unscathed but the windows blew out, wrecking the interior and rendering the house unlivable. In later years, rising ocean levels and coastal erosion took the land away from under the dome house and essentially put in out in the Gulf. Hurricane Wilma, which landed as a Category 3 storm near Cape Romano in 2005, destabilized the home further. Later efforts by subsequent owners and the public to save or move the dome house failed; hundreds of thousands of dollars were sunk into the unsuccessful effort. Hurricane Irma in 2017, also a Category 5 storm, which hit Marco Island as a Category 3 hurricane, sunk two of the six domes, leaving the four standing that I saw.

Remains of the Dome House now underwater

The remains of the dome house (Sarah Rosenbaum).

On Sept. 28, 2022, Hurricane Ian, nearly a Category 5, finished off the house sand sank the last four domes. Perhaps the Dome House is a cautionary tale about building so close to the shore.

destruction caused by hurricane ian in florida

Ft. Myers beach viewed from the Lani Kai rooftop bar in 2021 (Amy Bentley). An American flag stands in the wake of Hurricane Ian at Fort Myers Beach, Florida on Oct. 2, 2022. (Senior Airman Jesse Hanson, U.S. Air National Guard, The National Guard).

My family and I rode out Hurricane Ian in our Sarasota home. We had some minor roof damage (already repaired) but consider ourselves lucky. Mother Nature had once again delivered Florida a devastating blow, this time causing catastrophic damage to the quaint beach communities on Ft. Myers Beach and the beloved Sanibel Island.

Sanibel, a famous sheller’s paradise, has been featured previously in Beachcombing many times. The causeway to the island was destroyed in several places and is being repaired so property owners can access the island by vehicle. The future of tourism on Sanibel remains unknown and won’t be known for many months—or even years—as property owners survey the damage. The one-of-a-kind Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum on Sanibel Island, loved by beachcombers everywhere, sustained significant structural damage and flooding from Hurricane Ian. It’s currently closed and its future also remains uncertain.

recovery after hurricane ian in florida

Woman shelling on Lido Beach after Hurricane Ian (Amy Bentley). Sanibel Beach (Amy Bentley).

Despite all the damage, Southwest Florida’s beaches are as beautiful as ever, even if the shoreline has shifted a bit in some places. Beach lovers from all over the world are still flocking here. Sanibel Island fans mourn the damage to their island on social media and pledge to return and rebuild.

I still enjoy beachcombing in Sarasota. Our local beaches came through Hurricane Ian fine. Our beloved shorebirds are still here. The dolphins and manatees still swim off Lido Beach, which I visit every week. They are a welcome sight. The shelling in the Ten Thousand Islands is still great also.

Perhaps one day we’ll figure out how to match Mother Nature, who has proven time and time again to be a most formidable opponent. I’m not placing any bets.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2023 issue.

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