MATLACHA, Fla. — About three dozen pastel-colored cabins line the only road to Pine Island, the largest island along Florida’s Gulf Coast where Hurricane Ian made landfall.
To get to Pine Island from mainland Florida, drivers must first cross a bridge and through Matlacha, an island community of about 600 people – many are commercial fishermen. Residents who live at the foot of another bridge to Pine Island, which was destroyed by Hurricane Ian last week and serves as the only connection to the mainland.
On Wednesday, before meeting with President Joe Biden, Gov. Ron DeSantis visited Matlacha to announce that the roads there had been cleared and the bridge had been temporarily repaired to connect its residents to the mainland. The work took three days, his office said later.
But a quarter of a mile from where the governor spoke, Matlacha resident John Lynch saw another tide roll in and another piece of his home crumble into the bay.
The sea wall, which used to keep the water at bay, has now partially collapsed. If it’s not repaired, he said, his cottage will wash away with the tide.
“They’re focused on the roads and the bridge, rightly so,” Lynch, 59, said Wednesday, pointing to the tide that had breached the seawall and engulfed his home on Pine Island Road.
“People are losing their homes and their businesses” that can still be saved, added Lynch, who also owns the Blue Dog Bar & Grill in Matlacha that was damaged by the storm. “I’m looking for that sense of urgency to prevent it from getting worse.”
Ian hit Florida’s southwest coast at speeds just shy of a Category 5 hurricane. At least 117 have died, making it the deadliest storm since 1935.
Matlacha is in Lee County, an area that has by far the highest number of deaths of any county in the state. When Lynch returned after the storm, he watched as emergency workers pulled bodies from the streets. He also saw that his neighbors’ homes were flooded – their foundations cracking away.
Most of the cabins were built in the 1940s or 1950s. They boast a great view of the water and a berth for skiffs.
“It’s a drinking town with a fishing problem,” joked John Hayes, who also lives in Matlacha and is known to locals as “Fishcutter John.”
On Wednesday, Hayes, who works for Lynch, helped his boss haul trash out of the restaurant.
Lynch described Matlacha as a blue-collar community without high-rises like those on the ravaged neighboring barrier islands of the popular vacation destinations of Sanibel and Fort Meyers Beach. He said because it’s a small community, it doesn’t get as much attention as larger tourist destinations.
“We don’t have that big of a voice,” he said.
At least a dozen of his neighbors’ homes on Pine Island Road are still standing, he said. But the tide, which typically stops at the once robust seawall, is now eroding the soil from beneath the structures.
In his 25 years on the island, Lynch has seen the tides get progressively higher — but never as high as they have been since the hurricane hit.
As Ian barreled into southwest Florida last Tuesday night, Lynch and his family evacuated to Cape Coral, a mainland town where he had worked as a firefighter for 20 years. As soon as the sun rose on Thursday, he took a trip in his neighbor’s boat back to Matlacha.
He said he barely recognized the place.
It “was like a foreign landscape. I couldn’t feel things because the landmarks were gone,” he said.
When Lynch arrived at his dock, he saw that the cabin next to his, owned by his 87-year-old uncle, Alan Lynch, had been reduced to a pile of rubble.
“It was going to be his home for the rest of his life. That was the plan,” John Lynch said.
Since the hurricane hit, residents have been busy trying to control the damage. Until Thursday, they were still unable to leave Matlacha, so local skippers like “Mangrove Jimmy” – who used to give mangrove kayak tours – shepherded residents back and forth to what was left of their homes.
Lynch donated a supply of frozen chicken breasts from his restaurant to guys down the block, who have been grilling it for islanders while they work.
Arriving at Matlacha, Lynch clears dirt from his lot and cleans the mildew that covers his drywall. At night, he ships supplies to a 72-year-old employee who is ill and does not want to leave his home on Pine Island.
On Thursday, when authorities opened the road from the mainland to Matlacha, Lynch saw an opportunity to do something more for his home. He called in a contractor the next day to help stabilize its foundation.
But without emergency repairs to the seawall, Lynch worries that even when the power comes back on, he won’t be able to bring his family home.
“We’re going to make it no matter what,” he said. “But it might not be in Matlacha.”