Just hours after the eye of Hurricane Ian passed over Pine Island off Florida’s southwest coast on Wednesday, Peter Lilienthal was already on the move.
Having stayed through the storm—the most brutal of the 15 previous hurricanes he’s weathered—he knew this barrier island of 9,000 would soon be powerless and cut off from the mainland. So he embarked on a mission to find food before it spoiled, and serve it to his hardest-hit neighbors.
“We were getting permission from everyone we could, asking if we could go in and raid their kitchens,” said Lilienthal, whose day job is running a food club on the island. “At one spot, we had to crawl through a doggy door to get in and get food out.”
By the evening of Sept. 28, the day Ian made landfall, Lilienthal was cooking up hamburgers, pork chops, and hot dogs to deliver on foot to those who didn’t evacuate. As he went around making deliveries—where storm surge allowed—he said the entire island was already at work rebuilding. He soon learned these efforts would have to be mostly on their own—the only road connecting the island to the mainland, Pine Island Road, had been washed away.
Ever since, Lilienthal has been cooking, delivering generators brought by boat, and trying his best to lift the spirits of those who lost everything.
As word has spread about Lilienthal’s efforts, the 53-year-old has earned himself the nickname “Chef Pete.” And he no longer has to deliver food or salvage groceries—everyone now comes to him.
The home where Lilienthal cooks, belonging to a friend of his, has become an island hangout of sorts. It’s one of the few places on Pine Island with internet access, via Starlink, and the dinner menu has grown increasingly sophisticated, free to anyone in need.
Lilienthal said that Tuesday’s meal was a seafood stew, full of calamari and crab legs. Wednesday night will feature pasta Bolognese. Thursday will be a return to seafood—already a staple among the island's residents—after a neighbor donated 10 pounds of grouper and snapper.
“Everyone is just sitting in chairs, eating, drinking beer, and just not even thinking about the storm for a minute,” Lilienthal said.
By morning, reality returns as the sun rises on the ravaged area. Lilienthal recalls looking out his window while in the eye wall and seeing a shed fly over three houses. Some of his friends' homes were completely inundated by water. He still can’t believe his Kia Seltos, purchased just three weeks ago, survived the storm.
Lilienthal said Pine Island feels isolated. FEMA didn’t arrive until Monday evening and many are stuck on the island, which Ian passed directly over. Lilienthal said he hasn’t seen a single cop car since last Wednesday, and he said that residents have acknowledged they’ll be left to rebuild almost entirely on their own.
“Besides a few scumbags who have decided to loot, everyone here is doing their part and getting to work, all day, every day,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m doing enough, and others feel the same way, but we’re doing as much as we can.”
Pine Island is in Lee County, which had the highest confirmed death toll from Ian at 55, though the toll is not broken down by city or area. Lilienthal thinks the confirmed casualties on Pine Island will only grow once rescue and recovery crews spend more time there.
Celebrity chef José Andrés also briefly served food for free to Pine Island residents for a day this week, the Washington Post reported. He’s been cooking and serving food around Southwest Florida, and said that Pine Island and nearby Fort Myers Beach—also decimated by Ian—are “two different universes,” with Pine Island having more full-time residents in what is generally viewed as a working-class area.
Regardless of outside aid—and encouragement from officials that residents should evacuate the island—Lilienthal said he and his neighbors plan on staying and rebuilding the place they love.
A huge step in that process, restoring road access to the mainland, is poised to be completed Wednesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said, and a Publix grocery store on the island had workers sent over by boat to have the store prepare for reopening.
Among those who refuse to leave the island is Lisa Bently. Her sister, Alison Bently, told The Daily Beast that Lisa, who suffers from diabetes and is a cancer survivor, decided to ride out the storm with her Vietnam war vet husband in their Pine Island home.
“She called me during the storm crying and saying goodbye,” Bently told The Daily Beast. “She just kept saying, ‘This is catastrophic.’”
But the decision to stay on the island during the hurricane—and to remain despite no water, power, and a destroyed house—is simple: The pair have farm animals and a beloved home they refuse to leave behind.
“They have nowhere to go and they won’t leave behind the animals so they are just staying in the house. They have goats and cats and peacocks,” she said, adding that a part of her sister’s roof was blown off during the storm. “I just hope their house gets back together before she runs out of time.”
“She said that she would rather stay in her house and die than go somewhere unknown,” Bently added. “She just kept saying, ‘I am not taking a chance for maybe.’”