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From recreational pontoons to the Cajun Navy, Pine Island evacuation draws strong, mixed feelings

Pamela James

Though just a short drive from the city of Fort Myers, the communities of Matlacha, Pine Island, Bokeelia and St. James City may as well be a world away.

That used to be a good thing in this quiet, quaint and tree-filled barrier island of mostly hard-working people.

But not anymore.

Nearly a week after Hurricane Ian swept away homes and very likely people, the survivors say they feel like they have been forgotten, taking a back seat to tony Sanibel Island or the famed Fort Myers Beach.

Statewide, the death toll is now at least 100, but Lee County and its barrier islands took the brunt of it.

Skittle-colored, cottage-style businesses and homes at the foot of the Matlacha Bridge were reduced to rubble.

The now buckled road and broken bridge — a popular spot for anglers called "the fishingest bridge in the world" — used to provide passage to Pine Island, one of the last vestiges of Old Coastal Florida.

Two days after the storm, a man stood 100 yards or so from where he lived and began to cry, saying he is certain his friends and neighbors, those that didn’t leave ahead of the storm, were swept away by Hurricane Ian.

Days later, the often-considered resilient people of Pine Island say they are hungry.

They are tired.

And like Donna Greene, they want help.

“Well, all we need is water and support. That's what we need, and they're not giving it to us,” said Greene of St. James City.

Much of the initial support to the community came from volunteers, many say.

Alan Hoover, of R2C2 Global, Inc. in Michigan, rounded up 52 people with boats willing to come on to the island and help.

Between Thursday and midday Sunday, this volunteer search and rescue group has helped 1,348 islanders get to the mainland, Hoover said.

"We teamed up to come down here and volunteer to do whatever we could to help ease the suffering of those that are going through a very difficult process and life experience right now on the island,” he said.

Because trees are toppled over like Pixie Sticks, Hoover also is armed with a chainsaw.

Those fortunate to have generators are syphoning gas from toppled boats to keep them running.

"This hurricane had brought total destruction. I have friends that are there now trying to survive and work," said Andy Diaz of St. James City. "It's hard to get anything in."

Diaz evacuated ahead of Ian. Grateful to be safe, he said he feels helpless for those he left behind.

“But the fact that no one can get in is devastating to all of us. …. I just want to help.”

Until the road and bridge is repaired, or a temporary bridge is in place, heavy equipment cannot get to the island.

Governor Ron DeSantis has directed the Florida Department of Transportation to assist Lee County to expedite emergency repairs.

“If the equipment is not there, it doesn't get done and things are decaying, you know? We're desperate, you know? We want to start cleaning up our homes we want to start picking up...I want help for my neighbors,” Diaz said.

Urban Search and Rescue and the Coast Guard were dispatched to the Lee County’s barrier islands less than 12 hours after Hurricane Ian made landfall along neighboring island of Cayo Costa, officials say.

Still, many feel left out.

“I live in Bokeelia with three kids, my husband and elderly 83-year-old mother-in-law. We stayed at home during the storm. It was the most horrific experience in my whole lifetime,” said Kate English.

Melissa Hoover and her husband, Doug, spent 30 hours in the car driving down to Pine Island from Minnesota. Along the way, she zoomed in on a photograph of the area desperately looking for her roofline.

She couldn’t find it.

“There's there's not a piece of lumber left from our house...it is washed away,” she said. The home and about 70 percent of her property.

Still they kept driving hoping they could be of some sort of assistance to fellow islanders.

“We decided to continue to come because we thought if people are going to be cleaning up their houses...How can we help them?," Hoover said. " So, that was our saving grace. "

Strangers came as well – by the masses.

John Bridgers, the founder of the Cajun Navy 2016 — Pinnacle Search and Rescue, came from Walker, Louisiana.

He stopped in Sarasota County to help those impacted by floods and then pushed on to Pine Island.

Bridgers was invited to the White House by then President Donald Trump in 2017 and hailed as a hero for his rescue efforts during Louisiana’s historic flooding in 2016 and Hurricane Harvey the following year.

He arrived here with air conditioning units, tarps, diapers and Palmolive.

“We hear this all the time. 'Why would y'all come all the way from Louisiana and help us?' We're just doing the Lord's work," Bridgers said.

Leah Brantingham has lived on the island her whole life. But after evacuating, she came back Sunday to try and help. Her efforts helped an 88-year-old man get off the island, she says.

“He looked like he went through a war... It was very, very sad to see,” she said.

Garrett Cox from Palm Beach Gardens packed up his car at 5 a.m. Thursday and pushed west.

He made his way from Punta Gorda to Naples. Sunday he was setting up shop with generators, tents, chainsaws and inflatable boats.

“We're just here to help,” Cox said.

Residents have been urged to leave the island, but many though hungry and weary say they won’t.

“We're not leaving,” said Cynthia Bray of Bokeelia.

She has horses to care for and what she’d really like is some water.

Copyright 2022 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

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