In Florida, Pine Islanders are still cut off from the world
Pine Island was heavily impacted by Category 4 Hurricane Ian that hit Florida last Wednesday.
A week after Hurricane Ian hit, access to Pine Island near Fort Myers is still impossible by road.
The bridge that connected Pine Island to the mainland was destroyed. It was the only land link between the island of some 9,000 people and the rest of Florida. Since then, the islanders have been largely left to fend for themselves. No electricity, cellular network or drinking water. And a growing sense of insecurity.
The devastation is visible everywhere on the island. The streets are littered with debris, houses have been destroyed or flooded, and small beach-side restaurants have disappeared.
This post-apocalyptic landscape is similar to that of other Florida cities heavily affected by Ian, for example Fort Myers or Port Charlotte. But the atmosphere is different on Pine Island. The streets are almost empty, the silence is heavy. On an abandoned car, a clear message: Looters killed (looters will be killed).
Warnings to looters are increasing on the island, where first responders can only reach by helicopter or boat.
Jamie Surgent never carried his gun on his belt. Usually, this Floridian keeps it at home or lugs it around in her purse. I want to make sure I can go home to my family and my children,” says Jamie, who lives in the community of St James City, in the south of the island.
“There are people looking to profit from all this devastation.
— Jamie Surgent, resident of Pine Island
For the past week, she and her husband have been going back and forth between the island and the mainland. The Surgents have a barge, which they offer to the islanders: those who have packed their bags and want to evacuate and those who have chosen to stay but need supplies.
Jamie Surgent was born and raised in Lee County. This mother-of-two makes sure she's armed when she walks around Pine Island.
Keep busy, help others. That's all you can do, says Ahren Surgent. This firefighter is visibly moved. He compares his island to a war zone, but without artillery.
The Surgents were lucky: their house wasn't damaged too much. Their two children are with their grandparents, but they remain on the island. Someone came prowling near our property two days ago, we had to chase him away, says Ahren.
Law and order has not completely disappeared from Pine Island. A few police officers are seen patrolling the island with reinforcements from the National Guard. The islanders believe, however, that their numbers are insufficient given the size of Pine Island: 27 km long, 3 km wide.
A few minutes ago, we heard gunshots, says Jeremy Locke, a former soldier who came to help the victims. There is a feeling of insecurity.
“People who have chosen to stay absolutely want to defend their property because everything is missing at the moment.
— Jeremy Locke, Co-founder of Aerial Recovery
Many islanders also recall recent statements from their state's Republican governor. Ron DeSantis indeed issued this warning to looters: I wouldn't take that risk for you: we're in a Second Amendment state.
A house in Flamingo Bay, a quiet area of Pine Island
It is around 5 p.m. when the Surgents prepare to weigh anchor with a few victims on their barge, including Jennifer Finsen. This South African moved to Florida a few years ago and had a home in Flamingo Bay, a quiet area of Pine Island where mostly older people live.
My residence is completely destroyed, she says. The front yard and solarium are no longer there and the structure has folded in on itself. Looks like a war zone: there is debris everywhere.
Uprooted trees still litter the streets of Pine Island, where residents are still without power.
Seated aboard the boat, hair blowing in the wind, a big smile on her lips, Jennifer – who was uninsured and who currently lives in an Airbnb – seems s recover from the shock. She talks excitedly about the reconstruction and the hurricane windows she will be installing.
“It’s still heaven here. Even if it's destroyed, that doesn't mean it's over.
— Jennifer Finsen, Pine Island resident
The resident isn't the only one speaking optimistically about rebuilding.
Since Wednesday, the Surgent barge has evacuated elderly people and families in addition to supplying the island with essential foodstuffs and building materials.
On the way back, the barge passengers squeal with delight when they see construction trucks busy near the main road. They'll get there, whispers Jennifer of the authorities' promise to reopen the bridge on Saturday.
However, even when Pine Island is no longer cut off from the world, reconstruction will take time. months and the traces of the hurricane will remain.
It's like a soldier who goes to war and comes back with an injury, says Ahren Surgent. It will never be the same again, and it will be the same with this community.