PINE ISLAND, Fla. (AP) — Paramedics and other volunteers with a group that helps rescue people after natural disasters went door to door Saturday on Florida’s devastated Pine Island, offering to evacuate residents who rode out Hurricane Ian only to find themselves stranded in a landscape of flooded homes without water or electricity.
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.
Helen Koch blew her husband a kiss and mouthed the words “I love you” as she sat inside the Medic Corps group’s helicopter that lifted her and seven of the couple’s 17 dogs to safety from the decimated island Saturday. 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 that she had been sucked out of her home by the storm surge.
Some residents said they hadn’t seen anyone from outside the island for days. Some shed tears as Medic Corps volunteers came to their doors and asked if they wanted to be evacuated. Some declined the offer for now and asked for another day to pack their things. But others were anxious to get off the island.
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 go, but he didn’t want to leave just yet. The couple kept declining offers to be evacuated, saying they were not ready, but might be willing to leave on Sunday.
Medic Corps is a nonprofit group of pilots, paramedics, doctors, a 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.