‘In panic mode.’ Fear of not enough water, food, gas in Florida’s coastal towns after Ian

While most Floridians woke up to a normal Sunday with plans for church, family gatherings, and football watching, many people in the Southwest Florida coast, the areas most ravaged by Hurricane Ian, spent the day growing weary, frustrated, and angry as they waited for electricity, gas, water, food and other basic needs.

Some took to social media to vent and plead for help.

“We do not have any help in St. James City, there are so many people here that have completely lost everything like elsewhere,” Denise Martinez posted on a Pine Island Facebook group. “As of this morning, nobody has brought in supplies besides the people trying to get to the island themselves to check on loved ones or if they still have a home. All of the people on the island need food, water, gas, propane, they do not even have a roll of toilet paper. Something needs to be done today or more people will die. It is a complete war zone down here.”

A catamaran sits on top of a home in a canal on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in St. James City, Fla., in Pine Island Hurricane Ian made landfall on the coast of Southwest Florida as a category 4 storm Tuesday afternoon leaving areas affected with flooded streets, downed trees and scattered debris. Pine Island residents can’t get to the island due to damaged bridges and roads.
A catamaran sits on top of a home in a canal on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in St. James City, Fla., in Pine Island Hurricane Ian made landfall on the coast of Southwest Florida as a category 4 storm Tuesday afternoon leaving areas affected with flooded streets, downed trees and scattered debris. Pine Island residents can’t get to the island due to damaged bridges and roads.

Gaby Gutman Hall’s post on that same Facebook group said: “The devastation is horrific, however as I learned with Hurricane Andrew the first few weeks after the storm is when people need the most help. We are not sure why government agencies are not providing supplies even if it’s temporary until residents can wrap their head around what happened and what they need to do next.”

Billy Dutko, 67, left, is consoled by Mike Romeo, 53, in their neighborhood of St. Jude Harbors in Pine Island on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Saint James City, 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.
Billy Dutko, 67, left, is consoled by Mike Romeo, 53, in their neighborhood of St. Jude Harbors in Pine Island on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Saint James City, 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.

A woman on the Fort Myers Beach Facebook page wrote: “I’m looking for my 96-year-old grandmother, Julia Rodriguez. She was living in Sunshine Mobile Village. Last we heard she was evacuating on Wednesday but haven’t heard from her. She doesn’t have a cell phone. Any advice? We are very worried and live in NY.”

READ MORE: Hurricane Ian blasted Pine Island like never before. The community is sticking together

Miami native Tony Jankowski, who moved to Port Charlotte in 2015, works at the Gasparilla Marina in the town of Placida, where they lost 60 of 800 boats in the hurricane and suffered considerable damage. He said the mobile home park next to the marina was completely leveled, some of the trailers landed in the marina, and most of the residents there were retirees on fixed incomes.

Jankowski said he is concerned that people in that area are “in panic mode,” especially recent transplants who had never experienced a hurricane.

“Back with Andrew, we had been through hurricanes before, so we knew what we had to do to prepare, and we knew to be patient after,” he said by phone on Sunday. “Over here on the West Coast, the best way to explain it is there are a lot of Northerners, snowbirds. A lot of people who moved here recently since COVID, who used to live in Michigan, Chicago, Minnesota, they have moved here full time, made this their home, and this is their first hurricane so they’re panicking.

“Remember Andrew, we couldn’t get anything or get to stores for two or three weeks. I drove up to Fort Lauderdale to go get stuff and then drove back to Miami. Here, you have so many people that this is so new to them that they’re in a panic mode.”

Jankowski, whose house is still without electricity, said he had just returned from Publix, where he got a quarter pound of four different deli meats. The man in front of him ordered three pounds of each meat. He said cars lined up for more than two miles along Veterans Way to get into a Home Depot.

“People are pulling up into gas stations, the ones that have power to pump, they’re filling up their cars and also filling not just a carrying container but giant containers that fit in the back of their trucks and they’re filling those up with 200 gallons of gas,” Jankowski said. “I’m thinking `What are you doing? Try to save some for the rest of the people’. That’s where you see the panic. People think this isn’t going to end, they’re going to be without lights for months. We’re already getting lights back in some areas, but people are scared.”

READ MORE: Searching for survivors at Ian’s ground zero, Fort Myers Beach. It doesn’t always end well

The Florida District Medical Examiners, which reports hurricane deaths to the Medical Examiners Commission (MEC) following autopsies to confirm deaths are storm-related, reported 58 deaths attributed to Hurricane Ian as of Sunday evening. Forty-two of those were in Lee County. Combining tallies from the MEC with other deaths reported by sheriffs’ offices as of Sunday evening, Hurricane Ian has killed about 85 people in Florida.

As many as 10,000 people remain in shelters after evacuating their homes.

President Joe Biden will visit Florida on Wednesday to witness the damage caused by Hurricane Ian, the White House announced Saturday night. The president will first go to Puerto Rico on Monday to view the devastation from Hurricane Fiona two weeks ago.

The White House did not release exactly where Biden will go in Florida or who he will meet with during his visit. The president this week approved a Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster declaration for areas hit by the storm, including enhanced individual assistance for residents in 13 counties.

Water, meals and rescue planes coming from FEMA

FEMA announced it had sent 1.6 million liters of water to Florida and promised another 6.6 million liters in the coming days. It is also are providing 5.5 million meals, more than 400 ambulances and four aircraft to evacuate people from nursing homes and other facilities. Also, the agency said:

Power restoration continues across Florida. Nearly 70% of peak power outages have been restored and fewer than 800,000 power outages remain.

The state of Florida provided 4,000 gallons of diesel to Lee County to power emergency generators to supply water to nearby hospitals. The state is also delivering 1.2 million gallons of water from Lakeland to Fort Myers for hospitals without water.

More than 550 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers personnel are conducting safety inspections, installing generators and assessing power needs.

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, speaking on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday morning, praised power companies for their work thus far but said restoring electricity in the hardest hit areas will be a lengthy process.

“We saw well over 2 million customers without power immediately following the storm, and the power companies have done an amazing job of getting things restored as quickly as possible,” she said. “But those hardest hit areas, they’re going to take some more time, and we know that there’s a water issue right now in Lee County.

“We’ve brought in support from the Army Corps of Engineers to work with the state to work with the county officials to assess the extent of that damage, and then what is it going to take to help repair it or at least put some temporary measures in place.”

Criswell also made a commitment to make FEMA’s programs more accessible to all Florida residents, including lower-income residents who are among the most vulnerable.

“There are people that often have a hard time accessing our programs. There’s barriers to our program,” she said. “And one of our focus areas, since I’ve been in office is to make sure that we’re removing those barriers. So these people that need our help the most are going to be able to access the help that we offer.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday morning, praised the federal government’s response.

“The Biden administration has responded, as they said, no complaints there. I think in times like this it’s not about politics,” Rubio said. “There will be a lot of people who have no homes to return to…We’re still in the search and rescue process, although now I think it becomes more about search and recovery. Then begins the process of rebuilding, to the extent possible, which will take years.”

Rubio recalled his family vacations in Sanibel Island and lamented that its Old Florida charm cannot be rebuilt.

“Some of these places, Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel, they’ll never look the same again,” Rubio said. “Those communities have been basically wiped out. [They were] a slice of Old Florida, a lot of families went and created memories in places like Sanibel. They’re going to be rebuilt, but they won’t look the same because you can’t rebuild Old Florida.”

A damaged causeway to Sanibel Island is seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian , Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, near Sanibel Island, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
A damaged causeway to Sanibel Island is seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian , Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, near Sanibel Island, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The South Seas Island Resort in Captiva Island is among the popular hotels in the area. Its CEO surveyed the damage and, for now, is focusing on his staff.

Timbers Resorts CEO Gregory Spencer told the Miami Herald Saturday afternoon his top concern was the well-being of his 400-member staff of the South Seas Island Resort. Spencer weathered the storm at his home in Winter Park, while everyone else dispersed to Orlando, Cape Coral, Jupiter and Fort Myers. It took three days, but by Saturday night, everyone was accounted for.

“We have a big effort in front of us to take care of them before we figure out the rest of it,” Spencer said. “We can rebuild things. We can’t rebuild people.”

The Winter Park-based development firm Timbers Resorts acquired the 330-acre resort and wildlife preserve South Seas Island Resort a year ago alongside two other partners. Spencer has experienced several hurricanes but said Ian “is pretty bad.”

“We’ve had our share of storms. This one obviously is up there,” Spencer said. “The sheer size of it, the windfall and the storm surge seem to be significant.”

With the help of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Lee County’s Sheriff’s Office, Spencer traveled to his resort on Captiva Island on Friday for the first time after Ian. Fallen trees and power lines littered the island. Several buildings had caved-in roofs and water penetration.

After roaming the resort for two hours, Spencer said he plans on returning on Tuesday for a full assessment of the damage. He said the next step would be to get supplies moving on and off the island for the recovery process.

Pine Island, Matlacha need help, residents say

While Sanibel and Captiva have gotten a bulk of headlines and airtime on the news in recent days, the residents of Pine Island, Matlacha and Fort Myers Beach want to make sure they are not forgotten. It appears their pleas are being heard. The U.S. Coast Guard on Sunday held a waterborne evacuation for Pine Island residents who wanted to leave and move to a shelter on the mainland.

At a Sunday afternoon press briefing in Arcadia, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he has directed the Florida Department of Transportation to build a temporary bridge to Pine Island to make the area accessible by vehicle.

“It’s not going to be a full bridge and you’re probably going to have to go over it probably 5 miles per hour or something, but it will at least let people get on and off the island with their vehicles,” he said.

DeSantis said work will begin as early as Monday.

“It’s not going to be an overnight thing, but it’s not going to take months and months,” he said.

Dan Brothers wrote on Facebook: “Pine Island has been called a `Blue Collar’ Island. A lot of us worked our tails off to become thousandaires so we could live like millionaires on Pine Island. A fellow islander said during WWII the enemy would blow up a bridge and the Corps of Engineers would have it rebuilt in 24 hours. Get us on the island and watch us go to work!”

Mike Romeo, 53, surveys damage at his St. James City home on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Pine Island, Fla. Romeo has lived on Pine Island for years. 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.
Mike Romeo, 53, surveys damage at his St. James City home on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Pine Island, Fla. Romeo has lived on Pine Island for years. 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.

Dawn Blaylock and her family have been homeowners on Matlacha and Pine Island since the beginning. There are streets named after her family members there. The area has been a part of her life since she was a child, and she plans to retire there some day.

She pleaded with authorities to speed up aid to the area.

“I understand the urgency of search and rescue, but the longer people are not able to return to homes they evacuated, to clean, assess damage and repair, the more the devastation is perpetuated,” she wrote on Facebook. “Temporary road repair is apparently feasible and would allow repair of necessary infrastructure to provide utilities, supplies, generators, fuel and to help residents and snowbirds return to normalcy of sorts. Given the basic needs being met, I am certain the resourceful people who love this area will band together to get things done.”

Aimee Dayment, another Pine Island resident, had one request: “Just make sure Pine Island isn’t forgotten by the government! The island shouldn’t be last in getting roads repaired because the billionaires don’t live there!”

Insurance villages coming Tuesday

Starting Tuesday morning, the state will also help private insurance carriers set up “insurance villages” in most of the areas impacted by Ian. The first ones will open in Lee and Charlotte counties, DeSantis said.

There, people will get help filing out insurance claims, he said.

“My message is basically, we want to get these insurance claims processed as quickly as possible,” DeSantis said. “I’ll also remind people that the damage you have is different in terms of policies.”

DeSantis urged residents to make sure they have all the documentation and know whether they will be filing claims with their homeowners insurance or the National Flood Insurance program. The governor said that he thinks most of the claims will be related to flooding, not wind damage.

People who live in Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Flagler, Hardee, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Orange, Osceola, Pinellas, Polk, Putnam, Sarasota, Seminole, St. Johns and Volusia counties and affected members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida can also apply for federal assistance at www.disasterassistance.gov, by calling 800-621-FEMA (3362) or by using the FEMA app.

For survivors using a relay service, such as a video relay service, captioned telephone service or others, give the FEMA operator the number for that service. More than 83,000 survivors have applied for assistance to help begin their recovery.

Small Business Administration disaster loans are available to businesses, homeowners, renters and nonprofit organizations in some Florida counties. Applicants may apply at disasterloanassistance.sba.gov under declaration #17644. For help, call 800-659-2955 or send an email to DisasterCustomerService@sba.gov.

Miami Herald staff writers Ana Ceballos, Mary Ellen Klas and Rebecca San Juan contributed to this report.