Paramedics and volunteers from a group that rescues people after natural disasters went door-to-door on Saturday on Florida’s devastated Pine Island, offering to evacuate residents who spoke of the terror of riding Hurricane Ian home floods and howling winds.
The largest barrier island on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Pine Island has been largely isolated from the outside world. Ian badly damaged the only bridge on the island, leaving it accessible only by boat or air. For many, the nonprofit medical corps volunteers were the first people they had 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 became emotional when he described what happened, saying the water rose at least 8 to 10 feet and there were 4-foot waves in the streets.
“The water kept hitting the house and we looked, boats, houses, we saw everything flying by,” she said, fighting back tears. “We’ve lost a lot at this point.”
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Conforti said if it wasn’t for his wife, Dawn Conforti, he wouldn’t have made it. He said: “I started to lose sensitivity, because when the water is at your door and it’s splashing against the door and you see how fast it’s moving, there’s no way you can survive that.”
He said his wife got them onto a table to keep them from being swept away by the water. The next day, he said, they took food to an elderly gentleman who lived in the next block and made sure to get him off the island on the first available boat.
“He lost everything,” Joe Conforti said of the man. “He said if we didn’t bring him food, he was going to take his own life that night because it was so bad.”
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Some residents cried when medical corps volunteers arrived at 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 eager to flee immediately.
Helen Koch kissed her husband and mouthed the words “I love you” as she sat inside the medical corpsman’s helicopter that lifted her and seven of the couple’s 17 dogs to safety in 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. He told The Associated Press that days earlier, he didn’t think they would make it as the big hurricane hit and the house started taking on water.
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Pine Island has long been known for its quiet, small-town atmosphere and mangroves. It is 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 thrown onto the roads. The island has no electricity or running water, except for a few hours on Friday when a resident said he was able to shower. A mobile home community was destroyed.
Medical corps volunteers went to a home to look for a woman who was known to have stayed during the storm and has not had contact with her friends since. Inside the woman’s home, heavy furniture had been knocked over and her belongings thrown away. There was no sign of the woman, leading to fears that the storm surge had washed her away from the house.
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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 convince her elderly husband to leave, but he still wouldn’t budge. The couple continued to refuse offers to evacuate. The couple said they weren’t ready but might be ready to leave on Sunday.
Claire St. Leger said he had nine people in his home, including neighbors, when the storm hit.
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“I thought we were all dying,” he said. “I just sat in an inner room with pillows, crossed myself so many times, I thought we were going to die for sure. The water just kept rising.”
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 began deploying aircraft and response teams to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.