PINE ISLAND, Fla. — Paramedics and volunteers with a group that rescues people after natural disasters went door to door Saturday on Florida's devastated Pine Island, offering to evacuate residents who spoke of the terror of riding out Hurricane Ian in flooded homes and howling winds.
The largest barrier island off Florida’s Gulf Coast, Pine Island has been largely cut off from the outside world. Ian heavily damaged the only bridge to the island, leaving it only reachable by boat or air. For many, the volunteers from the non-profit Medic Corps were the first people they have seen from outside the island in days.
Residents described the horror of being trapped in their homes as water kept rising. Joe Conforti became emotional as he recounted what happened, saying the water rose at least 8 to 10 feet (2.4-3 meters), and there were 4-foot (1.2-meter) waves in the streets.
“The water just kept pounding the house and we watched, boats, houses — we watched everything just go flying by,” he said, as he fought back tears. “We’ve lost so much at this point.”
Conforti said if it wasn't for his wife, Dawn Conforti, he wouldn't have made it. He said: “I started to lose sensibility, because when the water’s at your door and it’s splashing on the door and you’re seeing how fast it’s moving, there’s no way you’re going to survive that.”
He said his wife had them get on top of a table to keep from getting swept away by the water. The next day, he said, they brought food to an older gentleman who lived on the next block, and they made sure to get him off the island on the first available boat.
“He lost everything,” Joe Conforti said of the man. “He said that if we didn’t bring him the food, he was going to take his life that night because it was so bad.”
Some residents shed tears as Medic Corps volunteers came to their doors and asked if they wanted to be evacuated on Saturday. Some declined the offer for now and asked for another day to pack their belongings. But others were anxious to get away immediately.
Helen Koch blew her husband a kiss and mouthed the words “I love you” as she sat inside the Medic Corps helicopter that lifted her and seven of the couple’s 17 dogs to safety from the decimated island. The dogs were in cages, strapped to the outside of the helicopter as it took off.
Her husband, Paul Koch, stayed behind with the other dogs, and planned to leave the isolated island on a second trip. He told The Associated Press that days earlier, he didn't think they would make it, as the major hurricane raged and the house began taking on water.
Pine Island has long been known for its quiet, small-town atmosphere and mangrove trees. It's a popular destination for fishing, kayaking and canoeing. Now, bleak scenes of destruction are everywhere in this shattered paradise.
Houses have been reduced to splinters and boats have been tossed onto roadways. The island has no power, and no running water – save for a few hours on Friday when one resident said they were able to take a shower. A community of mobile homes was destroyed.
The Medic Corps volunteers went to one house to search for a woman who was known to have stayed behind during the storm and has had no contact with her friends since. Inside the woman’s house, heavy furniture had been toppled over and her belongings were tossed about. There was no sign of the woman, raising fears she had been sucked out of her home by the storm surge.
Linda Hanshaw said the tight-knit island community is amazing and “everyone I know who hasn’t left is trying to leave.”
But that wasn’t true for everyone. Kathleen Russell was trying to persuade her elderly husband to leave, but he didn’t want to budge just yet. The couple kept declining offers to evacuate. The couple said they were not ready, but might be willing to leave on Sunday.
Claire St. Leger said she had nine people in her house, including neighbors, as the storm came in.
“I thought for sure we were all dying,” she said. “I just sat in an inside room with pillows, I crossed myself so many times, I thought for sure we were dying. Water kept rising.”
Medic Corps is a nonprofit group of pilots, paramedics, doctors, a former Navy SEAL and other volunteers that responds to natural disasters and gets people to safety. According to the organization’s website, it began in 2013 in response to Super Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines and in 2017 it began deploying aircraft and responders to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Forliti reported from Minneapolis.