As Hurricane Ian took aim on Pine Island, the largest barrier island off Florida’s Gulf Coast, Jackie Mononhan and her neighbor Bernee Brawn headed to the opposite side of the state and safety.
But Jackie’s husband, Brian, decided to stay behind in Brawn’s stilt house in St. James City, at the southern tip of the island, a boat ride away from Sanibel and Captiva. The last time Mononhan talked to him was Wednesday morning before a massive storm surge swept over the island. He told her: “I’ll stay. I’ll stay here.”
She didn’t hear from him again until mid-afternoon Thursday when he got cellphone reception near the fire station. He told her he was fine but the island was “a disaster.”
Friends, family trying to track down loved ones
Despite mandatory evacuation orders, some residents decided they could ride out the storm on the tight-knit 18-mile-long island, and local Facebook message boards buzzed as evacuees tried to track down family and friends. Some who stayed on the island pleaded for help or rescue.
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Hurricane Ian: Horrific scenes in Matlacha, Pine Island, Florida
— BKJN Annie Lee (@BkjnLee) September 29, 2022
“I know there are at least a half dozen people with elderly parents who decided to stay on the island,” Brawn said Thursday from Wellington in Palm Beach County, where she evacuated with her two dogs. There were reports of people going up to their roofs to escape rising water.
“Please can someone send help,” Darcy Lynn Conner, of Bokeelia at the northern end of the island, posted at 4 p.m. Wednesday.
And that was before a 4:21 p.m. high tide pushed the storm surge higher. Another high tide came at 3:15 a.m. Thursday.
Then there was the frantic post Wednesday afternoon on the Facebook group, Pine Island Florida, from Nikki Taylor: “Is anyone on Pine Island safe enough to check on my uncle and aunt? He says they are about to drown.” The couple live on Stringfellow Road, the main road on Pine Island.
Linda Brooks couldn’t find her 53-year-old brother, Justin Brooks Jr., who lives in Cherry Estates, near the southern tip of the island.
She said he doesn’t have a cellphone, only a house phone, and he suffers short-term memory loss as a result of a brain injury.
“I tried to get my brother off the island, and he wouldn’t,” Brooks wrote in a post on the Facebook group, Things To Do on Pine Island. “Before the storm actually hit, I gave him a list of things to make sure he had taken care of but he has a hard time comprehending sometimes, especially when he’s in a panic.”
The Matlacha/Pine Island Fire District suspended emergency services just before midnight on Monday as the weather deteriorated and said 911 calls would be logged and attended to when conditions allowed. Lee County Electric Cooperative reported 7,000 outages on Pine Island, or virtually the whole island without electricity.
‘It’s a massive crater’
Serina Barry posted on a local message board that a friend tried to make it out to Pine Island Thursday morning but found the road to Bert’s Bar & Grill, an institution in Matlacha known for its all-you-can-eat fried shrimp, live music and dockside dining, gone. “I don’t just mean covered with water. I mean it’s a massive crater.”
Barry’s friend reported that the Pine Island Fire Department was at the entrance to Matlacha Thursday morning considering whether it could launch boats to get over to the island and help.
At one point during the hurricane, a fast-moving river of water carrying unmoored boats rushed down what was once Pine Island Road, the main street through Matlacha, a slice of old Florida.
A two-lane drawbridge in Matlacha connects Pine Island to the mainland. Other than by boat, the bridge is the only way on and off the island. On Thursday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said the bridge, along with the Sanibel Causeway, was seriously damaged. Smaller spans linking Matlacha also showed gaping holes.
Ken Russell, who was on Pine Island Thursday, posted a message board warning early Thursday to those eager to get back on the island: “Roads gone in Matlacha. Anyone off island, you will not be going onto the island unless you have a boat and even then, there are submerged obstructions in the water, so right now it’s extremely dangerous….”
Colorful slice of old Florida
Although Matlacha is technically not a part of Pine Island, islanders think of the low-lying enclave of tutti-frutti-colored clapboard houses, fish houses, art galleries and restaurants as part of their community.
Pictures and videos posted on social media showed widespread destruction on Pine Island with roofs ripped off, debris from destroyed homes littering the roads, boats tossed at crazy angles and large trees and boats blocking Stringfellow Road, the only street that runs from St. James City on the island’s southern tip to Bokeelia, the northernmost point.
Those who stayed on the island were the eyes of snowbirds and evacuees who pressed them for news of the fate of their homes and how high the water rose on their streets. For many, the news wasn’t good.
“We just heard it is 4 [feet] in our house on Bayview,” Dan Brother, who lives in St. James City, posted on a local message board.
For residents and snowbirds alike, canal-laced Pine Island has always been special — a slice of Old Florida with old-school fishermen, mango groves, cattle farms, Calusa shell mounds, nesting Bald Eagles, and countless tunnels snaking through thickets of mangroves. Residences range from fishing shacks to multimillion-dollar mansions overlooking the water.
It is a place where people look out for each other, civic groups fight vigorously against encroaching development from nearby Cape Coral and environmental groups such as the Calusa Land Trust work to buy and preserve the natural beauty of wide swaths of the island.
The possible erosion of their way of life in the wake of Hurricane Ian may be what scares Pine Islanders the most, but if anything, they are resilient.
“Pine Island was pretty destroyed after Hurricane Charley [August 2004] and they made it back,” said Brawn. “Is our lifestyle gone? Who knows? I do believe Pine Island will make it back. I just don’t know when.”
For her, the most stressful part is the uncertainty. “I think the not knowing is the worst. Just tell me do I have a house or don’t I have a house,” said Brawn. “And then, of course, so many people who stayed and we just can’t reach them.”
At 8:10 a.m. Wednesday, just before the power began flickering off across the island, Jim McLaughlin, the administrator of a Facebook Group called Jim Mac’s Pine Island Updates, wrote: “Well, we have reached the point of no return… I fear for our tiny community. Be strong. Have faith. Believe that whatever the damage, we will recover… together. God help us all.”
Stephanie Platts wasn’t going to wait for help from authorities. She loaded up her car with a kayak, a canoe and a Jon boat before driving off from Lake Worth on Thursday afternoon.
She hasn’t spoken to her mother or stepfather, Rose and Kevin Davis, who live in a mobile home in Bokeelia, since Tuesday. Despite her pleas, they did not evacuate.
“We’re literally sailing into no-man’s land and then walking into zombie land,” Platts said. “I’m not saying that I don’t have faith in the National Guard, I mean I do, God bless them. But I need to go on my own. I have people there that are stranded and they need my help.”
Mimi Whitefield, a former foreign correspondent for the Miami Herald, lives on Pine Island. She and her cats are staying with friends in Coral Gables and she has no idea what has happened to her St. James City home. She can be reached at email@example.com
Miami Herald intern Natalia Galicza contributed to this report.