PINE ISLAND, Fla. –
Paramedics and volunteers with a disaster relief team went from place to place Saturday on Florida’s devastated Pine Island, recommending the evacuation of residents who spoke of the horror of the crossing. Hurricane Ian in flooded homes and howling winds.
The largest barrier island off Florida’s Gulf Coast, Pine Island has been largely cut off from the outside world. Ian severely damaged the only bridge leading to the island, making it accessible only by boat or by air. For many, volunteers from the nonprofit Medic Corps were the first people they saw from outside the island in days.
Residents describe the horror of being trapped in their homes as the water keeps rising. Joe Conforti became emotional as he recounted what happened, saying the water rose at least 8 to 10 feet (2.4-3 meters) and there were waves 4 feet (1.2 meters) high on the road city.
“The water kept hitting the house and we watched, the boat, the house – we watched it all go by,” he said, trying to hold back tears. “We’ve lost a lot at this point.”
Conforti says without his wife, Dawn Conforti, he wouldn’t be able to do it. He said: “I started to lose consciousness, because when the water is on your doorstep and it splashes against the door and you see how fast it moves, there’s no way you’re going to survive. .”
He said his wife placed them on top of the table to avoid being swept away by the water. The next day, he said, they brought food to an elderly man who lived next door, and they made sure to get him off the island in the first available boat.
“He lost everything,” Joe Conforti said of the man. “He said that if we didn’t bring him food, he would take his life that night because it was so bad.”
Some residents were in tears when Medic Corps volunteers came to their homes and asked if they wanted to be evacuated on Saturday. Some turn down offers now and ask for another day to pack their belongings. But others were anxious to leave immediately.
Helen Koch kissed her husband and uttered the words “I love you” as she sat inside the Medic Corps helicopter that lifted her and seven of the couple’s 17 dogs to safety from the decimated island. close. The dogs were in cages, tied on the outside of the helicopter as it took off.
Her husband, Paul Koch, stayed with the other dogs, and planned to leave the isolated island on a second trip. He told the AP news agency the day before that he didn’t think they would make it, because a big storm raged and the house started to flood.
Pine Island has long been known for its quiet small-town atmosphere and mangrove groves. It’s a popular destination for fishing, kayaking, and boating. Now, bleak scenes of devastation are pervasive in this shattered paradise.
Houses were reduced to rubble and boats were tossed onto the roadway. The island has no electricity and no running water – save for a few hours on Friday when one resident said they could take a shower. A community of mobile homes has been demolished.
Medic Corps volunteers went to a home in search of a woman who is believed to have stayed in the storm and has not been in contact with her friends since. Inside the woman’s house, heavy furniture was overturned and her belongings were tossed around. There was no sign of the woman, raising fears that she had been swept out of her home by the high tide.
Linda Hanshaw said the tight-knit community on the island is amazing and “everyone I know who hasn’t left is trying to leave.”
But that’s not true for everyone. Kathleen Russell is trying to convince her elderly husband to leave, but he still doesn’t want to budge. The couple repeatedly refused to evacuate. The couple said they are not ready, but may be ready to leave on Sunday.
Claire St. Leger said she had nine people in her home, including neighbors, when the storm hit.
“I think for sure we’re all dying,” she said. “I just sat in an inner room with pillows, I crossed over so many times, I thought for sure we were going to die. The water kept rising.”
The Medic Corps is a nonprofit group of pilots, paramedics, doctors, Navy SEALs, and other volunteers that respond to disasters and get people to safety. According to the organization’s website, it began in 2013 in response to Super Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines, and in 2017 it began deploying aircraft and response aircraft to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
Forliti reports from Minneapolis.