Florida locals are fighting back amid the damage


Without water or electricity, the residents who remain on Pine Island struggle for a sense of normalcy.

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PINE ISLAND, Fla. – Cigarette dangling from her fingers, Christine Wright slowed her battered Oldsmobile minivan to a crawl, hovering over a downed power line that lay across the road.

A few minutes earlier she zipped by in the other direction and nearly tangled the back wheel of the van, potentially tearing the rear axle off. She didn’t want to make the same mistake twice: Hurricane Ian’s devastation is inevitable here, and it would be impossible to get the van repaired because the mainland bridge was washed out.

“You can’t help an act of God,” Wright, 57, said.

Wright rode out Ian’s anger at her townhouse in Bokeelia, on the narrow island’s northern tip. Her home suffered very little damage, thanks in part to a neighbor’s tree that fell early and shielded her windows from flying debris.

Now, five days after the storm, Wright is helping those in need, delivering water and supplies to friends, checking on damaged houses, stopping to talk to a stranger reporting a water leak. She treated a USA TODAY reporter to a tour. It’s not like she has to go to work, she said.

She pointed out where a man with a tractor cleared neighbors’ yards and moved a damaged Jeep to safety. Where World Central Kitchen distributes free hot meals. Where volunteers provide internet service powered by a rumbling semi-truck and Elon Musk’s Starlink.

“It’s about the positivity. Once you lose that, you lose your confidence,” she said. “And then you’re useless.”

Ian slammed into Pine Island with 150 mph winds, snapping telephone poles and trees, tearing roofs off houses and overturning mobile homes and RVs. About 9,000 people live on Pine Island and the surrounding areas year-round, but it swells dramatically when northern snowbirds soak up the sun from the waterfront bars and restaurants.

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St. James City at the southern tip appears to have been hardest hit, while Bokeelia at the northern end suffered less. But the destruction is everywhere, and it breaks Wright’s heart to see it.

She said that as she drove from one end of the island to the other Monday, through the four-way junction where the road normally runs east back over a bridge to the tiny island of Matlacha and then to the mainland. Both bridges are out, and authorities say it will take at least a week to get them fixed well enough for traffic to resume.

Under normal circumstances, leaving Pine Island for the mainland isn’t much more than a quick drive over bridges and you’re in Cape Coral, with Fort Myers just down the road.

But now the only access is by boat. Dozens of volunteer freighters donated supplies to the islands in private boats, and are working with the US Coast Guard, which is managing the water-based evacuation of the island.

The people who are helping – boat captains, fishermen, residents of the area – say they are forced to do something. Most of them burn their own gas to power; there is no government subsidy or fuel depot.

Depending on the day, a parade of party barges, airboats and jet skis, along with small speedboats, can make the two-mile float from the ramps and docks on the mainland to the temporary staging area amid the rubble of the Yucatan Waterfront Bar and Grill, located next to the bridge from Pine Island to Matlacha.

Chase Hussey, 36, lost his home near Fort Myers Beach during the storm — he watched it float away from his neighbor’s second-story window. He spent two days cleaning up what was left, heartbroken to see his chainsaws and other debris removal tools destroyed.

Hussey, who owns Paradise Parasail, is not sure how many of the company’s boats survived the storm. But he dug out one of their smaller shuttle boats from his backyard, found some gas, and hit the water.

“I said, if I don’t do something, I’m going to lose my mind,” Hussey said, as parakeets tweeted an alarming sound similar to his boat’s depth sounder warning. “I don’t know which is worse: having half of something or nothing. Because when you have nothing, you have to rebuild. You have no choice.”

‘I wouldn’t leave this island for anything’

Pine Island residents now face the same tough choices. Those whose homes survived face a long walk back to normal. Power will likely be out for days. Intermittent water trickles from hoses and sinks, but you can’t drink it. And longtime businesses won’t reopen until they rebuild, and even then, will the tourists come back?

More than 20 years ago, Wright left his glass factory job in Pennsylvania after seeing production move to Mexico or overseas. She found her little piece of happiness on Pine Island after throwing a dart at a map and until the storm made salads as a chef at the Blue Dog Bar & Grill on Matlacha.

She said that the people who live on the islands consciously choose a different life. They’ve escaped the rat race of the East Coast, the high taxes of California, and settled in a place where there are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met yet.

Wright hopes the restaurant will reopen soon so she can get back to making money. But she is not in a big hurry, she said. And it will likely be a while before tourists return to an island that everyone agrees is the closest you can get to the Florida Keys.

“Some of the little things you have to laugh at or you’ll go crazy,” she added as she drove past handwritten signs offering showers or hot meals.

After gathering crates of water and other supplies from the makeshift port at Yucatan, Wright drove over to a friend’s house. They left during the storm, but returned soon after and fired up a generator for power, conserving water as best they could. Passing by a small artificial Christmas tree that had already been set up, Wright delivered an ice cooler and reminded his friends where they could get hot meals prepared by volunteers.

“We need to get back to a sense of living. Not normalcy. But a sense of living,” she said. “I wouldn’t leave this island for anything. It becomes a part of you, in your blood.”

And then she laughed.

“Plus I don’t like the snow.”

‘We do it ourselves’

Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday afternoon that repairs to the Pine Island Bridge should be completed by the end of the week so debris can be cleared and linemen can begin restoring power. But as of Monday, crews were still focused on searching homes for missing people.

That focus created tension. Officials urged island residents to leave so workers could more easily move around, remove the downed power lines and get the water system running again.

Although no one was forced out—and no one was prevented from returning—many islanders suspect the government is deliberately withholding aid to force them out. Several residents who had previously evacuated said they came back to make sure their homes were not condemned by authorities in their absence. (A request for comment to the Florida Emergency Management office was not immediately returned.)

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A handwritten sign at one of the supply distribution centers said FEMA remains focused on the search and reiterates, “We are all here to help you. You will NOT be abandoned.”

It doesn’t feel that way to Scott Synol, 56, who has only lived on the island for a few months but quickly made it home. On Monday, as Wright scanned the tables of supplies, Synol expressed his frustration.

“Don’t they understand that we haven’t got a liter of water from the government? Not a gallon of fuel,” he said. “There are a lot of people who count on us. They need help, so we do it ourselves.”

Working 18-hour days in the hot sun with no air conditioning to retreat to, Synol gave voice to the frustrations of many islanders who just want to be at home, no matter the conditions.

In the hours after the storm passed, Synol and a group of men were given permission to open large-bottomed boats to siphon fuel for generators. A man whose semi-tractor was stuck on the island had been running his diesel engine to power a Starlink terminal, allowing people to connect to the internet via Elon Musk’s satellite system in the small area around the damaged Bob and Annie’s Boatyard on Stringfellow Road.

Synol said it’s easy for outsiders to mock the islanders, saying they should simply leave their homes and cars and possessions behind for an uncertain future on the mainland.

“There are no rental cars. There are no hotels. And people’s lives are all here. So where do we go?” he asked. “If there was an earthquake in Haiti this morning, we’d be a C-130 in the air right away, and they’d be unloading pallets of food and water in hours. But we’re getting nothing. And we need help.”

‘The most breathtaking’

With a small bag of supplies she’s gathered, Wright hopped back into her van. She repeated: Islanders are a different race.

She took a detour into the Flamingo Bay trailer park, home to hundreds of trailers, many of which were empty during the storm. Dozens of houses were destroyed by the strong winds, their terraced roofs and siding torn away. Others were flooded when the storm surge broke through.

“In some areas it reminds me of a tornado,” Wright said, pausing at a wrecked trailer where her best friend lived. “Some homes are totally destroyed and others have virtually no damage.”

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Driving out of the park, Wright paused to watch as Curtis and Angela Eggleston carried their belongings out of their damaged trailer. They rode out the storm in their Jeep Wrangler after the trailer was damaged and parked close to a neighbor’s concrete garage wall for safety.

Curtis Eggleston, 59, has lived on the island for 30 years. He said he wouldn’t trade his life here for anything. He is already making plans to buy land and build a home. But first he has to take care of this one.

He figures their insurance company will cover it all, and they plan to leave the island to stay with Angela’s father on the mainland while they figure out their next move. As they chatted with a reporter, Angela, 51, noted that it was 2 p.m., which meant the water might have been turned back on temporarily.

She grabbed the hose and a faint stream dribbled out. She rinsed off her muddy feet as the stream dripped to a halt.

“I guess it’s not back yet,” she said with a sigh.

On the plywood they’ve used to seal their damaged home, the two have hung an American flag and spray-painted a large sign threatening to shoot looters. In addition to the house, they lost a car, a golf cart, a motorcycle and $50,000 in tools.

After staying for several days, they reluctantly prepare to leave. Life on the island is hard when you can’t flush the toilet or turn on the light. The nightlife they loved is also gone.

“We’re getting things closed up, what little we have left,” Curtis said. “The government doesn’t let you get much insurance on these things. I had a little, as much as I could get, but it’s certainly not enough to get another house.”

Wright said hello to the couple – she doesn’t know them but suspects she’s seen them. And then she was back to explore.

She had been so busy the first few days that she didn’t get to visit the southern end of the island. Without cell phone service, it was difficult to check up on friends, so she did it in person.

“When you pull up to a friend’s house that was completely underwater and you see them standing there digging through their stuff, you shed a tear, you give them a hug,” she said. “But it’s the most breathtaking thing. seeing your friend. Because they’re alive.”

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