Pine Island residents tell of horror, fear when Ian endured

Paramedics and volunteers with a group rescuing people after natural disasters went door to door on Florida’s devastated Pine Island on Saturday, offering to evacuate residents who spoke of Hurricane Ian’s terror in flooded homes and howling winds.

Pine Island, the largest barrier island off Florida’s Gulf Coast, is largely cut off from the outside world. Ian severely damaged the only bridge to the island, making it accessible only by boat or plane. For many, the nonprofit Medic Corps volunteers were the first people they’ve seen from outside the island in days.

Residents described the horror of being trapped in their homes as the water continued to rise. Joe Conforti got emotional when he told what had happened, saying that the water rose at least 2.4-3 meters and that there were waves 1.2 meters high in the streets.

“The water kept pounding against the house and we watched, boats, houses – we just saw everything fly by,” he said, fighting back tears. “We’ve lost so much right now.”

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Helen Koch, a dog breeder, is being evacuated with some of her 17 dogs in a helicopter for mediccorps.org, which arrived with two helicopters, paramedics and volunteers in the wake of Hurricane Ian on Pine Island, Florida, Saturday, Oct. 1. , 2022.
(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Conforti said that if his wife Dawn Conforti hadn’t been there, he wouldn’t have made it. He said, “I started to lose my sensitivity because if the water is in front of your door and it splashes on the door and you see how fast it moves, there’s no way you can survive that.”

He said his wife let them sit on a table to avoid being dragged into the water. The next day, he said, they brought food to an elderly gentleman who lived in the next block, and arranged for him to come on the island’s first available boat.

“He lost everything,” Joe Conforti said of the man. “He said if we didn’t bring him the food, he would kill himself that night because it was so bad.”

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Members of mediccorps.org, who arrived with two helicopters, paramedics and volunteers, help Paul Koch and some of his dogs evacuate in the wake of Hurricane Ian on Pine Island, Florida, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.

Members of mediccorps.org, who arrived with two helicopters, paramedics and volunteers, help Paul Koch and some of his dogs evacuate in the wake of Hurricane Ian on Pine Island, Florida, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.
(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Some residents cried as Medic Corps volunteers came to their doors and asked to be evacuated on Saturday. Some declined the offer for the time being and asked for another day to pack their things. But others wanted to get away right away.

Helen Koch blew her husband a kiss and uttered the words “I love you” as she sat in the Medic Corps helicopter that took her and seven of the couple’s 17 dogs to safety from the decimated island. The dogs were in cages, tethered to the outside of the helicopter as it lifted off.

Her husband, Paul Koch, stayed with the other dogs and planned to leave the isolated island for a second time. He told The Associated Press he didn’t think they would make it days before, when the great hurricane raged and the house began to take up water.

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The bridge leading from Fort Myers to Pine Island, Florida, was badly damaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.

The bridge leading from Fort Myers to Pine Island, Florida, was badly damaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.
(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Pine Island has long been known for its quiet, small-town atmosphere and mangrove trees. It is a popular destination for fishing, kayaking and canoeing. Now there are gloomy scenes of destruction everywhere in this shattered paradise.

Houses have been reduced to splinters and boats have been thrown onto roads. The island has no electricity and no running water – except for a few hours on Friday when a resident said they could take a shower. A community of mobile homes was destroyed.

The Medic Corps volunteers went to a house to search for a woman who was known to have been left behind during the storm and who has not been in touch with her friends since. In the woman’s house, heavy furniture had fallen over and her belongings were tossed about. There was no sign of the woman, raising fears that she had been sucked out of her home by the storm surge.

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The bridge leading from Fort Myers to Pine Island, Florida, was seen badly damaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian on Pine Island, Florida, Saturday, October 1, 2022.

The bridge leading from Fort Myers to Pine Island, Florida, was seen badly damaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian on Pine Island, Florida, Saturday, October 1, 2022.
(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Linda Hanshaw said the tight-knit island community is great and “everyone I know who hasn’t left is trying to leave.”

But that wasn’t the case for everyone. Kathleen Russell tried to persuade her elderly husband to leave, but he still wouldn’t give in. The couple continued to decline offers to evacuate. The couple said they weren’t ready yet, but might be willing to leave on Sunday.

Claire St. Leger said she had nine people in her home, including neighbors, when the storm came in.

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“I thought we were all going to die,” she said. “I was just sitting in an inner room with pillows. I crossed myself so many times that I definitely thought we were going to die. The water kept rising.”

Medic Corps is a non-profit group of pilots, paramedics, doctors, a Navy SEAL and other volunteers that responds to natural disasters and brings people to safety. According to the organization’s website, it began in 2013 in response to Super Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines and began deploying aircraft and emergency services to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2017.

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