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Artsy Matlacha in Lee County sees destruction, death in wake of Hurricane Ian

Homes were half-swallowed by water and a body floated in front of the ruins of one home.
Donna LaMountain, 51, embraces her friend, Tammey Lynch, 55, after looking at damage in Matlacha, devastated by Hurricane Ian.
Donna LaMountain, 51, embraces her friend, Tammey Lynch, 55, after looking at damage in Matlacha, devastated by Hurricane Ian. [ MATIAS J. OCNER | Miami Herald ]
Published Sep. 30

MATLACHA, FLORIDA — Many of the colorful cottages, boutiques and restaurants that made this artsy little fishing village famous and fun are gone or battered now, swallowed by surge or broken by wind.

Boats have been flung into yards, homes flung into water. Kayaks hang in mangroves like ornaments. Mud covers broken pottery and furniture.

Related: Friday live updates: Florida recovers as Hurricane Ian targets Carolinas

And Thursday, just a day after Category 4 Hurricane Ian tore through Matlacha, a body floated in front of the ruins of one home. Stunned residents say others have been found.

On Thursday, some of them gathered to reconnect and to start picking up the pieces.

Related: Hurricane Ian's catastrophic toll includes at least 17 dead

With a section of Pine Island Road gone just east of the Matlacha Pass Bridge, the only way to return was by boat. But a few also had decided to ride Ian out.

“It was terrifying,” said John Hayes, 47. As water filled his house, he survived by lying still on his bed with his chihuahua Anabel on his chest while his refrigerator floated by and the roof caved in.

Never again, he said.

“I’m not going to be stupid twice,” he said. “I got lucky. Bravery had nothing to do with this.”

The U.S. Census puts the population of Matlacha, which consists of a cluster of funky pastel Key West-style buildings on either side of a two-lane road, at about 850 people.

Residents, one said, can be described as “tough, crusty old islanders.” But the ruin they found left them in shock.

Doug Root, the owner of a local bait shop, ferried some of his neighbors back. A Miami Herald reporter and photographer also reached the village by boat.

Caked in mud after working on his property after the storm, Root said he lost another boat — Charley swamped his first — and his trailer home.

Tammey Lynch, one of Root’s passengers, grew emotional on the other side of the impassable road as she hugged her husband, John, in front of their gutted restaurant, the Blue Dog Bar & Grill.

Related: Where to donate or volunteer to help Hurricane Ian victims

A white, spearfish-shaped sign in the entrance reads: “The best things in life come out of the BLUE!”

The building stood, but a water line about five feet tall ran across the walls amid a muddy mess. The restaurant’s large walk-in cooler, packed with kegs, sweet potato fries and other food, stood in the middle of the street.

“Andrew was nice compared to this,” said Jesse Tincher, one of Blue Dog’s co-owners and a Miami native who lived in that storm’s path of destruction in 1992.

He evacuated Wednesday before the worst of Ian’s punishing winds and storm surge, taking with him a portrait of his father from his time in the military, his most prized possession.

Water drenched the rest, and wind blew out his back wall. A palm tree in his backyard was nowhere to be seen.

The Lynches’ 1946 yellow two-story home, though waterlogged, stood despite devastation up and down the street.

Many other homes did not. One nearby, a small lime green cottage called “Salt Spray,” was half-swallowed by the water. Splintered wood webbed with shredded clothes, chairs and doors lay swamped in water where the foundation of a vanished house had been. A dresser landed in the street. A piece of a door with a key hook lay on the ground.

Even a recently renovated home, sturdy with a new roof, was mostly submerged next to a bridge that was missing about 15 feet of road.

John Lynch, a Miami native, was displaced after Andrew destroyed his rental house in 1992. His parents lost their home in Pinecrest, too. But Andrew knocked down people’s buildings. Ian, he said, also washed away land under some homes.

Savannah Lynch, 16, hugs her father, John Lynch, 59, and her mother, Tammey, 55, watches on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Matlacha, Fla. Hurricane Ian made landfall on the coast of South West Florida as a category 4 storm Tuesday afternoon leaving areas affected with flooded streets, downed trees and scattered debris.
Savannah Lynch, 16, hugs her father, John Lynch, 59, and her mother, Tammey, 55, watches on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Matlacha, Fla. Hurricane Ian made landfall on the coast of South West Florida as a category 4 storm Tuesday afternoon leaving areas affected with flooded streets, downed trees and scattered debris. [ MATIAS J. OCNER | Miami Herald ]

“What are you even supposed to do with this?” he said, gesturing at one of his properties reclaimed by the water. The retired firefighter, staring at the debris, said his whole life was on this strip of Matlacha.

Before sunset, fire rescue crews were offering boat rides back to the mainland. A firefighter picked up a boy to carry him over slippery mud. Passengers carried plastic bags and trash bags stuffed with clothes and keepsakes salvaged from the soggy wreckage. Several said they were happy to just be alive.

“I been knocked down on my ass in life. I’m a fighter. I’ll get back up,” Tincher said. “But it’s not going to happen overnight. I’ll tell you that.”

In front of Blue Dog, Tincher said he found another object that Ian’s wind and water left there.

On the other side of the broken road, a round blue table stood in the middle of the street. It was an eerie scene. And at the edge of the busted pavement near Island Pho & Grill, about 25 feet away from a blue Ford Focus precariously balanced over missing earth and mangled concrete, sat a single empty white chair facing the wind.

Perhaps a nice spot, before Ian laid waste, to watch a sunset.

Gulf water flows through a broken section of Pine Island Road on Thursday in Matlacha. The white chair came from the surrounding ruins.
Gulf water flows through a broken section of Pine Island Road on Thursday in Matlacha. The white chair came from the surrounding ruins. [ MATIAS J. OCNER | Miami Herald ]

• • •

Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage

HOW TO HELP: Where to donate or volunteer to help Hurricane Ian victims.

TAMPA BAY CLOSURES: What to know about bridges, roads in Ian’s aftermath

WHEN THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.

POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.

WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?

WHAT TO DO IF HURRICANE DAMAGES YOUR HOME: Stay calm, then call your insurance company.

SCHOOLS: Will schools reopen quickly after Hurricane Ian passes? It depends.

MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.

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