PINE ISLAND — The helpers were busy in Southwest Florida on Tuesday.
Six days after Hurricane Ian ravaged the area, boat captains and volunteers were offering free boat rides to people who wanted to go to Pine Island, a remote island of roughly 9,000 people that has been cut off from the mainland.
“It’s not about the money. It’s about mainly getting people away from the island and get needed supplies back there,” said Gary Cullen, 50, a boat captain from Cape Coral.
Dozens of people, including families with small children and older couples, lined up and waited to hitch a ride so they could check on their properties, bring supplies like food, water and generators to the island, or get a ride off the island.
Melanie Fierbaugh, pastor of the Keystone Heights United Methodist Church near Gainesville, was able to secure four boats and took multiple families back to their homes. Her team of five church members also brought supplies to families who remain on the island.
“There are 200 children on the island, including 42 under 6 as of last night,” Fierbaugh said.
The extent of the damage on the barrier island is still being assessed. In the days following the hurricane, many people in Southwest Florida coastal towns and islands have grown worried as they wait for electricity, communications, gas, water, food and other basic needs.
Becky Lavigne, 32, stayed in her home in the area of Bokeelia at the north end of the island with her husband and 6-year-old son, both named Mark. Like other residents who spoke with the Miami Herald, Lavigne thought the initial response from local, state and government officials was too slow. But as of Tuesday, as Army National Guard, police officers, deputies and firefighters arrived, she was grateful.
“I definitely think they could have done a little bit more, but no one was expecting this. I sure wasn’t,” Lavigne said. “It’s like [hurricanes] Andrew and Irma had a love child. That’s what we got.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis visited Pine Island early Tuesday afternoon. He flew in an Army Chinook helicopter, visited several spots in St. James City, one of the hardest-hit communities on the south end of the island.
“Probably saw more debris on Pine Island than any place I’ve been other than Fort Myers Beach. You have poles down, and other lines down and so no one had done anything about the power there,” DeSantis said at a news conference in Fort Myers. “So today when I went, we also had brought over via Chinook helicopters, we brought over linemen to start the work on the electrical there. That is going to be important.”
At a marina, DeSantis spoke with business owners and residents, and declined a plate of blackened shrimp and rice. Most of the people in the crowd appeared to be supporters of the governor, some yelling, “He’s going to be our next president.”
Even while maintaining her support for DeSantis, resident Erica Gehring said it felt like Pine Island was an afterthought until the past couple of days.
“We’ve been like the forgotten city,” she said.
The folks in St. James City at the south end of Pine Island have been enjoying creature comforts such as internet access, electricity and hot food because they took matters into their own hands — and thanks to the generosity and ingenuity of truck driver David Harrold and his wife Bee San Lim.
Using power from his International semi-truck engine and battery, Harrold hooked up a Starlink broadband internet system and generator. He parked his truck in a tiny parking lot on Sterling Road a few days ago, and it’s now where most of the residents congregate beneath a blue tarp, typing on laptops and charging cell phones.
“He’s a life saver,” said 64-year-old Jeannette Jones, a 20-year island resident. “It’s remarkable. We’re able to charge our phones, our computers, our batteries, my hearing aids.”
Harrold said he was inspired to help because of how close-knit the community has been.
“Our island may be broken, but we’re not,” he said.
In an interview with Fox News on Monday night, DeSantis said he wants to “avoid” declaring the barrier islands uninhabitable, or force residents from their homes, and that the state is doing everything it can to ensure help comes as quickly as possible. A day later, he publicly reiterated his commitment to help islanders stay home.
“Some of those folks were told to get off the island, but that is not the way they live, and so they asked us for support to help devise a solution,” DeSantis told reporters.
A temporary bridge to connect the island to the mainland is expected to be operational by Saturday, DeSantis said.
Greg Roppelt, 58, who has lived in St. James City on Pine Island since 2020, is one of the residents who has been trying to access the island since the storm. On Tuesday, he hitched a boat ride.
He has been traveling back and forth to check on his home, which he says has a lot of water damage, but is salvageable.
“It’s a real quiet place normally,” Roppelt said. “Now it’s real quiet.”
Roppelt and his wife left last Tuesday night, after the latest advisory showed the storm might be hitting them directly. The family, along with their two dogs and three cats, went to Orlando. On Tuesday, Roppelt was heading back there with several gasoline cans and other supplies.
A long recovery
As tens of thousands of Floridians recover from Ian, many are trying to figure out how to salvage their homes, file insurance claims, find temporary housing and meet basic needs.
Visit Florida, the state’s public-private tourism marketing arm, said Tuesday that several hotels have donated rooms to help 23 families who evacuated their homes in Lee County while their infants were in intensive care.
The state will also open a mobile field hospital along the Charlotte-Sarasota county line after receiving a request for one, Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said.
“We will be announcing in the coming days the opening of a field hospital with emergency room services there, probably within the next 72 hours, until Englewood and one other hospital that I can’t remember off the top of my head get back up and running completely,” Guthrie said.
The death toll from Hurricane Ian continues to rise.
Officials across 12 counties have linked about 105 deaths to the storm as of Tuesday evening — a toll that is likely to rise as search and rescue efforts continue. Most of the deaths have been reported as drownings.
President Joe Biden to visit
President Joe Biden will arrive at the Southwest Florida Regional Airport in Fort Myers on Wednesday to witness the damage caused by Hurricane Ian.
He will meet with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and receive an “operational briefing” from the governor and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell, along with other state and local officials, according to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
“I know I’m going to have a briefing with him, and we are going to meet,” DeSantis said. The time and location of their meeting has not been disclosed.
Biden visited Puerto Rico on Monday to see how recovery from Hurricane Fiona was progressing.
On Sunday, Biden approved a FEMA disaster declaration for areas hit by the storm, including enhanced individual assistance for residents in 13 counties. DeSantis has praised the White House’s response to his emergency declaration ahead of the storm.
“I think FEMA has worked very well with our with the state and local [officials],” DeSantis said.
Miami Herald reporters Tess Riski and Omar Rodriguez Ortiz, Tampa Bay Times reporter Lawrence Mower and McClatchy Washington reporter Alex Roarty contributed to this report.
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Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage
FEMA: Floridians hurt by Ian can now apply for FEMA assistance. Here’s how.
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?
MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.