Paramedics and volunteers from a group that rescues people after natural disasters went door-to-door on Florida’s devastated Pine Island on Saturday, offering to evacuate residents who spoke of the terror of weathering Hurricane Ian in flooded homes and howling winds.
Pine Island, the largest barrier island on Florida’s Gulf Coast, has been largely isolated from the outside world. Ian severely damaged the only bridge to the island, leaving it only accessible by ship or air. For many, volunteers from the nonprofit Medic Corps were the first people they’d seen from off the island in days.
Residents described the horror of being trapped in their homes as the water continued to rise. Joe Conforti was emotional as he recounted what happened, saying the water rose at least 8 to 10 feet (2.4 to 3 meters) and there were 4-foot (1.2-meter) waves in the streets.
“The water kept hitting the house and we saw, boats, houses, we saw everything fly by,” she said, fighting back tears. “We’ve lost a lot at this point.”
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Conforti said if it weren’t for his wife, Dawn Conforti, he wouldn’t have made it. He said: “I started to lose feeling, because when the water is 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.”
He said his wife made them stand on a table to prevent the water from sweeping them away. The next day, he said, they brought food to an older man who lived in the next block and made sure to get him off the island in the first available boat.
“He lost everything,” Joe Conforti said of the man. “He said that if we didn’t bring him food, he was going to take his own life that night because he was in such a bad way.”
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Some residents shed tears when volunteers from the Medical Corps came to their doors and asked if they wanted to be evacuated on Saturday. Some turned down the offer for now, asking for another day to pack their belongings. But others were eager to leave immediately.
Helen Koch blew her husband a kiss and mouthed the words “I love you” as she sat inside the Medical Corps helicopter that carried her and seven of the couple’s 17 dogs to safety on the decimated island. The dogs were in cages, tied to the outside of the helicopter as it took off.
Her husband, Paul Koch, stayed with the other dogs and planned to leave the isolated island on a second trip. She told The Associated Press that days before, she didn’t think they would make it, as the big hurricane hit and the house began to fill with water.
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Pine Island has long been known for its laid-back, small-town atmosphere and mangrove swamps. It is a popular destination for fishing, kayaking, and boating. Now, grim scenes of destruction are everywhere in this shattered paradise.
Houses have been reduced to splinters and boats have been thrown onto the roads. The island has no electricity or running water, except for a few hours on Friday when a resident said he could shower. A mobile home community was destroyed.
Medical Corps volunteers went to a home to search for a woman who was known to have stayed during the storm and has had no contact with her friends since. Inside the woman’s home, heavy furniture had been knocked over and her belongings dumped. There was no sign of the woman, raising fears that the storm surge had blown her out of her home.
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Linda Hanshaw said that the close-knit island community is amazing and “everyone I know who hasn’t left is trying to leave.”
But that was not true for everyone. Kathleen Russell was trying to persuade her elderly husband to leave her, but he didn’t want to give in just yet. The couple continued to reject offers to evacuate. The couple said they weren’t ready, but might be willing to leave on Sunday.
Claire St. Leger said she had nine people in her house, including neighbors, when the storm hit.
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“I thought for sure we were all dying,” he said. “I sat in an inner room with pillows, crossed myself so many times I was sure we were dying. The water just kept rising.”
Medic Corps is a nonprofit group of pilots, paramedics, doctors, a Navy SEAL, and other volunteers that respond to natural disasters and get 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 began deploying response aircraft and personnel to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.