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Florida barrier island residents recount horror of Hurricane Ian: ‘Thought for sure we were dying’

Rescue efforts continued Sunday on Florida’s decimated barrier islands, where Hurricane Ian made landfall last week.

The US Coast Guard was running evacuations by boat from Sanibel and Pine islands, which were disconnected from the peninsula after the superstorm wiped out a section of the sole bridge that connects them and the mainland.

Paramedics and volunteers from the non-profit Medic Corps went door to door on Pine Island on Saturday searching for people.

For some residents, it was the first time they had seen outsiders since Wednesday’s landfall. Many were anxious to immediately be taken to a shelter, while others asked for another day to pack.

The rescue crews heard harrowing tales of survival, including from many who were trapped in their homes amid the fast-rising water. Days after the storm, once bucolic Pine Island resembled a war zone, with homes splintered or leveled and boats strewn on top of roadways.

“I thought for sure we were all dying,” said Claire St. Leger, who was housing nine people in her home as the storm rolled in. “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.”

Another resident, Joe Conforti said through tears, “The water just kept pounding the house and we watched, boats, houses — we watched everything just go flying by.

For some residents, it was the first time they had seen outsiders since Wednesday’s landfall.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
The rescue crews heard harrowing tales of survival, including from many who were trapped in their homes amid the fast-rising water.
The rescue crews heard harrowing tales of survival, including from many who were trapped in their homes amid the fast-rising water.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Members of mediccorps.org help evacuate Bria Acerbo in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian on Pine Island, Fla., Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.
Members of mediccorps.org help evacuate Bria Acerbo in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian on Pine Island, Fla., Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

“We’ve lost so much at this point.”

Conforti said the water rose up to 10 feet, with 4-foot waves in the streets during the height of the storm Wednesday.

“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,” Conforti said, crediting his wife Dawn for thinking to get the couple up on a table to prevent being swept away by flooding in their house.

Kathleen Russell and her husband walk outside her home that was heavily damaged by flooding on Pine Island.
Kathleen Russell and her husband walk outside her home that was heavily damaged by flooding on Pine Island.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Helen Koch holds one of her 17 dogs as she is evacuated by helicopter by members of mediccorps.org.
Helen Koch holds one of her 17 dogs as she is evacuated by helicopter by members of mediccorps.org.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

The next day, the Confortis brought food to an older neighbor and helped him get on the first boat off the island.

“He lost everything,” Conforti said. “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.”

Helen Koch and seven of her 17 dogs were evacuated by air from their island home Saturday. Koch blew her husband Paul a kiss and mouthed “I love you” from inside the helicopter as it left for the mainland. Paul stayed behind with the other dogs and was waiting for a second ride off the island.


Here’s everything to know about Hurricane Ian:


A search of the home of a woman who rode out the storm and had not been heard from turned up empty and raised fears that she had succumbed to the storm surge that ravaged her house, flipping over heavy furniture.

At least 35 people had been killed by Ian in Lee County, which is home to the barrier island. County officials had been criticized for failing to order evacuations until 21 hours before the Category 4 storm made landfall on nearby North Captiva Island, about 5 miles to the west.

With AP

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