Amid 'gut-wrenching' destruction from Ian, Florida barrier island residents band together




  • In Business
  • 2022-10-01 19:07:03Z
  • By USA TODAY

When Hurricane Ian rammed into the southwest coast of Florida, the barrier islands off Fort Myers and Cape Coral - Pine Island, Captiva and Sanibel - took the brunt of the damage. The 155 mph winds peeled roofs off homes and snapped telephone poles in half.

The storm surge did the rest of the damage. It lifted boats, carrying them out of their docks and dropping them when it retreated. It ripped toilets out of tile floors, sucked doors out of their frames, busted through walls and windows. In its wake, everything it had touched turned to trash, thanks to the sewage it swirled.

Hurricane Ian vs. Hurricane Charley: Ian potentially 'catastrophic' for Florida, forecasters say

Hurricane Ian aftermath: Historic fishing village Matlacha before, after images

In the wake of the Category 4 storm, with the bridge to Matlacha and Pine Island out, rumors abounded about the state of Pine Island. Many eschewed evacuation, opting to stay with their homes and in their community instead. While the hurricane itself did terrible damage to structures on the island, the outpouring of support from neighbors on the island has been heartwarming.

Pine Islanders have lent trucks to evacuation efforts, spent days clearing the roads, and offered food and shelter to anyone on the island in need of help. They've spent their own time and money helping their neighbors, and they say they won't stop until everyone is secure.

Reporters and photographers with The News-Press/Naples Daily News, part of the USA TODAY Network, hitched rides out to Pine Island on the back of Jet Skis run by Chris Gerber and his girlfriend Linda Szalkowski.

Damage along the way to Pine Island

Pine Island is about 40 square miles, and home to about 8,500 people, according to the census. About half of those residents are age 65 and older; many don't have cars, preferring instead to travel by golf cart.

The potential for loss to the island was high.

The ride out was bumpy. Gerber wasn't sure what he'd find on Pine Island, although he'd been there before. He was hoping to bring water to people who needed it and offer rides back on his Jet Skis to anyone else who might want to return to the mainland, where power is slowly coming back on and water is running, albeit with a boil notice.

He pointed out damage along the way: a missing roof, a collapsed sea wall, a sailboat called Journey with the words NOT ABANDONED graffitied in black spray paint on the side.

A favorite watering hole, Bert's, is gone as well, and Island Pho, a Vietnamese soup spot that Gerber loved, is in sorry shape.

Hurricane Ian demolished Pine Island and Matlacha.
Hurricane Ian demolished Pine Island and Matlacha.  

The road just before the bridge to Pine Island has washed out. There's nothing but sewage- and particle-filled water there now. That, and a makeshift bridge someone had cleverly constructed out of a ladder and plywood.

On Pine Island, Gerber introduced reporters to his friend, Jason Swanson. Swanson had a project boat he had tied up in the canal before the storm. Now, it's sitting perpendicular to the canal in his front yard, the nose pointing at its former berth.

Help at every turn

Miami-Dade Fire Service Task Force 1 was out and about. Team members evacuated flooded-out residents and ferried them to and from the drop site where the U.S. Army would load them onto a Chinook helicopter and carry them to safety.  Also out were the U.S. Army, Lee County Sheriff's deputies, and every local who wanted to help.

Kari Peters, her fiancé Brian Blade and four of their children rode out Hurricane Ian in Blade's reinforced home on Manatee Drive in St. James City.

"I've lived in Southwest Florida all my life and I've never seen anything like this," said Peters, 38, who was born in Estero. "It was horrifying."

Hurricane Ian demolished Pine Island and Matlacha.
Hurricane Ian demolished Pine Island and Matlacha.  

Helicopters were a constant presence in the skies Friday above St. James City. Some are arriving to transport residents off the island; others to survey its remaining infrastructure.

"That's frustrating a lot of local people because they see a helicopter, they want to go but that might not be their mission," said Rick Gatt, who arrived Friday morning from the Tampa area as part of the Cajun Navy, a volunteer disaster relief group.

A U.S. Navy veteran, Gatt said they've been ferrying injured residents in need of higher-level medical care off the island by boat. Among them was a woman in her 70s with a serious wrist fracture and an elderly man with chronic pulmonary disease who was down to his one remaining inhaler.

Hurricane Ian demolished Pine Island and Matlacha.
Hurricane Ian demolished Pine Island and Matlacha.  

"We're helping with the people that wouldn't be able to tolerate a ride on a military helicopter," he said.

Hurricane denial of some residents frustrates emergency workers

Some Pine Islanders can be a stubborn lot, confident they can weather any storm life throws at them, including a Category 4 hurricane. Dr. Benjamin Abo, the medical director for the Pine Island Fire Department who is helping to coordinate evacuation efforts, said there's still a lot of denial among residents, especially older ones, about the necessity of vacating the island as soon as possible.

"There's not going to be power out here for a long (time)," he said. "Maybe water. But people need to go."

Abo said the destruction he's seen is reminiscent of both Irma's impact on the Keys in 2017 and Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm that decimated the Bahamas in 2019.

"It's going to take a while for us to rebuild," Abo said. "We will, but it's going to take a long time. It's kind of gut-wrenching to see what's happened to one of my islands."

Hurricane Ian demolished Pine Island and Matlacha.
Hurricane Ian demolished Pine Island and Matlacha.  

According to Tony Herrera, a lieutenant with the Miami-Dade Fire Service Task Force 1, the rescuers had not yet found bodies of residents. Residents said they believed a number of people had died, but had not yet been discovered.

"We haven't seen anything so far," Herrera said. "What we've seen is we're starting to transport people out, but a lot of people want to stay."

Working to help neighbors

The Low Key Tiki on Stringfellow has become a gathering spot. Owner Johnny Smith was grilling up food and serving beers to the community, trying to make sure everyone was fed and watered. People used it as a stopping point, hitching and giving rides to and from neighbors and strangers - and reporters - alike.

Islander Shaun Finley, who works at Low Key Tiki, shared that Smith had offered shelter to him and others during the storm. All told, 14 stayed in Smith's home, plus Finley's dogs.

A torn roof sits in front of its house as hurricane winds blasted the Pine Island structure.
A torn roof sits in front of its house as hurricane winds blasted the Pine Island structure.  

Smith's home is on stilts, which allowed it to weather the storm better, but made it sway with the winds. When the eye came through, Finley said, the house was swaying so viciously he went out into the hallway and braced himself on the walls.

"You never thought something could be so powerful," Finley said. When the storm surge came though, that took them by surprise. "It was like something from a horror movie."

But, he said, they're alive. And they're going to keep going, and offer help to anyone who needs it.

The Bridgewater Inn in Matlacha, photographed Friday September 30, 2022, was completely toppled after impact from Hurricane Ian.
The Bridgewater Inn in Matlacha, photographed Friday September 30, 2022, was completely toppled after impact from Hurricane Ian.  

At Cherry Estates, a mobile home community that was hit hard by Ian, the houses had been flooded and battered by winds. People who had returned said their particle floors were rotting out already, deteriorating into bits from the soaking they'd gotten. Houses were missing doors, awnings, roofs and even sides; wires were hanging so low you couldn't even access some streets.

Tom and Vivian Bridges live in Cherry Estates, in a neat gray double-wide with blue shutters. Vivian, who has no legs, gets around exclusively by wheelchair. They evacuated to their church, the First Baptist Church of St. James City, and spent two nights there to avoid staying in their double-wide.

"The wind and the water destroyed that building," Vivian said. The water was chest-height on Tom, who stands about 6 feet tall.

Vivian and Tom Bridges survey the damage around their mobile home park Friday September 30, 2022.
Vivian and Tom Bridges survey the damage around their mobile home park Friday September 30, 2022.  

"She has no legs to get up at all, and I had her floating on trash. Doors that blew off, and panels that blew off," Tom said.

Eventually, Tom Bridges found a baby mattress from a crib and placed that on top of the trash; Vivian was able to sleep on that. They have no phones, no power, no internet. Just a solar-powered radio. But still, the Bridges kept on smiling. How were they so positive?

"Because we live in Florida," Tom exclaimed, gesturing wide with his long arms.

"There's no place else we'd want to live," added Vivian. "We just didn't like this guy so much."

Pine Island showed major signs of damage after strong winds and flood waters as a result of Hurricane Ian impacted the island.
Pine Island showed major signs of damage after strong winds and flood waters as a result of Hurricane Ian impacted the island.  

Kate Cimini is an investigative journalist covering Florida. Share your story at (239) 207-9369 or email kcimini@gannett.com. 

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Pine Island destruction from Ian: Florida residents band together

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