After Ian, working-class Pine Island braces for extended misery

Residents are marooned after the bridge to mainland Florida collapsed in the hurricane

The single bridge to Pine Island in Florida, seen on Oct. 2, collapsed during Hurricane Ian, leaving residents with few options to get to their homes. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)
9 min

ST. JAMES CITY, Fla. — Tim Awad jammed damp stuffed animals and clothing that might be salvageable into a garbage bag in his saturated mobile home. Storm surge from Hurricane Ian had swamped the trailer he and his pregnant wife saved up for and bought six months ago, he said, and he was only beginning to grapple with the reality.

“We’ll rebuild if we have a chance. But I feel like it’s basically a total loss,” said Awad, 38, his eyes watery with emotion in his musty, muddy living room. “Financially, I could never recover from this.”

Awad, a handyman with a bushy beard, and other residents on Pine Island are only beginning to make sense of Ian’s assault on their quiet, beloved paradise — and wondering if the outside world has taken notice.

The island is the largest off Florida’s Gulf Coast, a working-class sanctuary known for its fishing, easygoing atmosphere and tightknit community. But Pine Island has neither the sandy resorts of Fort Myers Beach nor the celebrity homes on Sanibel Island, two wealthier island communities also devastated by the storm.

“We need to get people talking about Pine Island right now,” said Andrew Hill, a New Hampshire native who moved to the island three years ago from Clearwater, Fla. “That’s the most important thing.”

The community — which fluctuates between about 4,000 and 8,000 people, depending on the season — suffered a devastating blow from the Category 4 storm, with winds above 100 mph for hours. The southern end, closer to Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach, saw boats tossed around by the surf like toys, the destruction of dozens of homes and harrowing stories of survival by residents who chose to stay. Residents on the northern end of the island described living through one of the scariest days of their lives, too, though storm surge was lower there.

Like neighboring islands, Pine Island’s bridge to mainland Florida collapsed in the storm. The span offered passage to the neighboring fishing village of Matlacha and then to the mainland city of Cape Coral.

Over the weekend, an effort to help residents through an increasingly desperate situation expanded, bolstered at sea by private boat owners and the U.S. Coast Guard and by air by the Florida National Guard.

On the sandy shores behind the Gulf Coast Kayak rental shop in Matlacha, residents filed aboard small vessels and shuttled to and from the island past a handful of devastated shops and bars. Coast Guard members, clad in navy blue uniforms, orange life vests and helmets, observed in rubber Zodiac boats nearby.

Jeff Wilson, the general manager of Safe Harbor Pineland on the island, watched the water from aboard a 32-foot catamaran on Sunday as the vessel, the Island Princess, picked up another round of evacuees. His home on the southern end of the island was “pretty much destroyed,” he said, and he rode out the storm at a friend’s larger home on the island’s northern side.

“I watched houses float by,” Wilson said. “It was crazy.”

The majority of the evacuees using the vessel have been elderly, he said, many marooned on the island for days. Coast Guard members carried luggage and other possessions for them — and, in some cases, people on a wooden dining chair to get over the uneven, sandy terrain leading to and from the docks.

“A lot of people are just quiet,” he said of his passengers. “They’re in shock.”

On the other side of the water, residents shuttled on and off the island through the dock at Yucatan Waterfront Bar and Grill, a shuttered eatery that under normal circumstances would be serving tropical drinks and seafood. Coast Guard members and firefighters teamed Sunday to carry five-gallon cans of gas, cleaning supplies, nonperishable food and crates of water to a fire station three miles away where residents gathered.

Rep. Byron Donalds (R.-Fla.), whose district includes Pine Island, said Sunday that he’ll be pressing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide more fuel and other resources to speed recovery.

“Look, we have a population here and they have a can-do spirit,” Donalds said. “Their attitude is: Just get us help, and we’ll fix a lot of our own issues.”

A short walk away, celebrity chef José Andrés and workers from his nonprofit, World Central Kitchen, were spooning out a fresh meal of chili pasta with beef, corn and peas topped with cheddar and bacon bits and a side of coleslaw.

Andrés said in an interview that his team has been serving meals in several locations in southwest Florida since Thursday, a day after the storm hit. Fort Myers Beach and Pine Island “have two different universes,” he said, with more full-time residents on Pine Island.

“If you stay here six hours, you’ll see people popping up, popping up, popping up,” Andrés said.

Local residents have sought to help the chef by bringing produce they grew. He accepted it but said he usually pays for the food he cooks and wants to on Pine Island.

“Everyone wants to help,” he said.

In line waiting for food was Deborah Gallo, a Kansas transplant to Florida who lives in a trailer on Bokeelia on the northern side of the island. She said she knew God was alive and well when she and her “old man” made it through the storm, and compared it to the swirling tempest depicted in “The Wizard of Oz.”

“A hurricane sounds like demons screaming. That’s what it sounds like,” she said. “A tornado sounds likes like a freight train. And I heard a freight train.”

Gallo said that with phone service still down on part of the island, rumors have proliferated that residents would be thrown off the island after FEMA took over — and she sought confirmation that was not the case.

“I just wanted to hear what is happening from somebody real, you know?” she said. “The National Guard is over there, and the Coast Guard is over there. I feel a lot better about things.”

Gallo said she was told that a temporary bridge could be constructed this month to allow residents to drive off the island. They plan to leave but only then, once they can take their black, storm-battered Nissan Xterra and Harley Davidson motorcycle with them.

Robert and Mary Yager, another couple that came to get food from Andrés, had a similar plan: They’ll leave when they are able to drive off the island with some of their most important possessions. But they acknowledged that staying has become increasingly difficult, as fuel they stored runs low and gas stations on the island remain closed.

Mary Yager said people have been siphoning gasoline out of boats that are not theirs to get by. “I ain’t stealing somebody’s gas,” she said, but the couple still needs some for their pickup truck that survived the storm.

The Yagers live on the southern end of the island. They weren’t sure they’d make it through the storm alive, Mary Yager said, tears running down her cheeks. Their home is 15 feet above sea level, and storm surge came right up to their front door before receding.

“It was lapping at the front door while the roof was caving in on one side of the house,” Mary Yager said. “And we had nowhere to go.”

On the southern end of the island, Hill drove a pickup truck past downed telephone poles blocking one lane of traffic on Stringfellow Road, the main artery running north and south. He turned right into Flamingo Bay, another residential area populated mainly by mobile homes, and marveled at the destruction.

Hill evacuated to Boca Raton ahead of the storm, he said, and his wife, daughter and dog are now with family in his home state of New Hampshire. Still, he said, he understands why other people refuse to evacuate.

“Think about it. You lose everything. All you’ve got left are a car, a few … things and a pet,” he said. “People don’t want to leave with uncertainties.”

Signs have popped up around the island warning looters away, and Hill said they should be taken seriously.

“I wouldn’t want to mess with the people on this island,” he said.

One of the houses that Hill spotted on his drive was Awad’s. Hung with white, corrugated sheet metal, the modest structure held a sopping living room with a TV mounted to the wall and a shelf stacked with diapers for his future daughter.

He first made it back to the island Saturday, he said, after evacuating to nearby Cape Coral when the severity of the storm became clear. He offered someone $1,000 to take him across the water, he said, but the person told him it was free of charge when he reached Pine Island.

Nearby, the front side of another mobile home stood ripped open, with no roof in sight and one wall on the ground. Tools remained hung on the walls inside in a workshop. The owner, Jack Sharp, said that he rode out the storm inside and that his right hand was sliced open when his glass doors were pushed in and shattered by the wind.

Sharp, who said he served a tour in Vietnam in the Army, pointed out a water line on the inside of his mobile home that was about a foot high. Storm surge flushed in as the back half of the eyewall roared overhead and debris crashed into his home, punching a hole in a bedroom wall and damaging the headboard inside.

Sharp grabbed his laptop and went to a friend’s nearby after. Another neighbor’s home down the street caught fire after the storm was gone, he said, but he wasn’t thinking of leaving.

“I’m going to hold out here,” he said, “as long as we can.”