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The Spy Who Escaped the Eye of the Storm

WASHINGTON — The founding mayor of Sanibel, Fla., fled his waterfront island home so quickly last Wednesday as Hurricane Ian approached that he left his computer on and the refrigerator full.

“We left that fast,” said Porter J. Goss, better known in Washington as a former 15-year congressman from Southwest Florida, a fixture on the House Intelligence Committee and the former director of the C.I.A. But Mr. Goss, now 83, got his start in politics in the 1970s as a leader in the successful effort to incorporate Sanibel to hold off beach-hungry developers, eventually becoming its first mayor.

He is now worried about the future of the fragile island cut off from vehicle traffic by a collapsed causeway, as well as what comes next for him and his wife, Mariel, who evacuated to a farm they own in Virginia. They are uncertain what happened to their Florida home and possessions in the maelstrom of a near direct hit from the storm.

“Everything is down there,” Mr. Goss said in an interview. “I’m literally sitting up here wondering what is next.”

The story of Mr. Goss’s ties to now devastated Sanibel is a bit of a beach blanket-and-dagger saga. After intelligence careers with the C.I.A. in Cold War Europe and elsewhere, Mr. Goss and two fellow ex-spies settled in Sanibel, where Mr. Goss took advantage of the sun and sand to recuperate from a serious illness that brought his clandestine career to an end.

Using their professional know-how, the men founded a local newspaper, The Island Reporter. Fearing the island would become overbuilt, they set out to incorporate Sanibel into a village to gain more control over land use, hoping to preserve the unique characteristics of the sanctuary-like environment.

“We have an awful lot of rules and protections for natural resources,” Mr. Goss said. “It is very much an outdoor-oriented, family-type vacation place.”

Its popularity, along with newcomers trying to escape Covid, was already testing the limits of the island, noted Mr. Goss, who said Ian was a rare storm that exceeded its billing for hurricane-savvy residents of Sanibel.

“For once, the hype on the storm wasn’t as great as the storm,” he said. “It was the other way around. This turned out to be pretty incredible. It really caught a lot of people sort of flat-footed.”

Since fleeing with his wife, dog and their overnight bags before the bridge was closed down, Mr. Goss has tried to assess the damage to their house — a yellow pine and cypress structure built on stilts atop “many, many pilings” — from aerial photos. He said that the exterior damage does not look bad, but that the question was whether water flowed through the storm-fortified front door.

He takes some credit for imposing strong building standards on Sanibel after he and other city officials visited Dauphin Island, Ala., following a severe strike there by Hurricane Frederic in 1979.

“We saw what survived and what didn’t, and I learned a lot about foundation structures and first-floor elevations,” he said. “We brought that information back and put it in the code. If you are looking at Sanibel compared to Fort Myers, we came out a whole lot better because we’ve got a lot better building codes.”

One piece of property Mr. Goss has not been able to spy via photos and footage is his 26-foot outboard motor boat, a gift from his family on his 70th birthday and appropriately named 0070.

“I know it is not where it is supposed to be,” he said. “Because when I look to see where it is supposed to be, there is a helicopter parked there.”

As a veteran of federal funding fights, Mr. Goss knows that Florida lawmakers are going to have to make their case for emergency money and that some Republican leaders are already under fire — including Gov. Ron DeSantis and Senator Marco Rubio — for opposing federal aid to New York and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Mr. Goss said the need for money for Florida and other states punished by Ian is “pretty obvious,” but that was about as far as he would go.

“I’m not going to get dragged into a feud between the governor and the president,” Mr. Goss said. “They both have different jobs.”

But he said residents of Sanibel should be ready to bear some of the financial responsibility.

“I tend to feel if you are going to live in a high-risk area, you’ve got to accept the risk,” he said. “I’m not going to ask government to come and bail me out. And I think a lot of people feel that way.”

Mr. Goss was lucky to have somewhere to relocate to. He was routinely listed as one of the wealthiest members of Congress, and his escape plan last week consisted of heading to his family’s 582-acre expanse in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Many other residents of the storm-torn region are facing homelessness or other desperate situations.

First elected to Congress in 1988 after his stints in local government, Mr. Goss put his covert credentials to use on the House intelligence panel and helped lead the joint congressional inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks.

Then he was tapped by President George W. Bush to lead the spy agency in 2004. But his efforts to help the C.I.A. regroup after monumental intelligence failures ran into fierce opposition, and he was replaced after 18 months. Some critics said Mr. Goss could not get beyond his partisan background and did not have the skills for the post, but others said he was sandbagged — not the type to prevent hurricane damage — by colleagues who had their knives out for him at the insular agency.

Mr. Goss compared the Sanibel mayor’s job favorably to heading up the C.I.A.

“Being mayor of Sanibel was a tough job because we were being sued all the time by development people, but I was working with people I trusted,” he said. “I think that might be the big difference.”

As for any rebuilding on the island he helped shape — or even returning to check out his property — Mr. Goss is uncertain about what’s ahead.

“This is going to be a long, slow, painful process,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. The power is off. The infrastructure is in bad shape. It can be repaired, but it’s going to take a while.”

Still, he expects Sanibel and its residents to persevere.

“We still have a unique quality of life and a wonderful place where people want to come work and play. We still have the beaches and the birds and the fishing and all of that,” he said. “The community of Sanibel is very, very protective of the preciousness of the place.”

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