PINE ISLAND, Floa. – Cigarette dangling from her fingers, Christine Wright slowed her battered Oldsmobile minivan to a crawl, inching over a power line lying across the road.
A few minutes earlier, she zipped past in the other direction, nearly entangling the van's rear wheels and ripping off the rear axle. She didn't want to make the same mistake twice: Hurricane Ian's destruction is inescapable here, and getting the van fixed would be impossible because the mainland bridge was washed out.
"You can’t help an act of God," said Wright, 57.
Wright rode out Ian in her townhome in Bokeelia on the narrow island's north end. Her home suffered very little damage, in part thanks to a neighbor's tree that fell early and protected her windows from flying debris.
Now, five days after the storm, Wright is helping those who need it, delivering water and supplies to friends, checking on damaged houses and stopping to talk to a stranger who needs to report a water leak. She indulged a USA TODAY journalist with a tour. After all, she said, it's not as if she has to get to work.
She pointed out where a man with a tractor cleared neighbors' yards and moved a damaged Jeep to safety. Where World Central Kitchen is distributing free hot meals. Where volunteers are providing internet service powered by a rumbling semitruck and Elon Musk's Starlink.
“It’s all about the positivity. Once you lose that, you lose your confidence," she said. "And then you’re useless.”
Ian slammed into Pine Island with 150 mph winds, snapping telephone poles and trees, ripping roofs from homes, and tumbling mobile homes and RVs. About 9,000 people live on Pine Island and the surrounding areas year-round, but it swells dramatically as snowbirds from the North soak up the sun from the waterside bars and restaurants.
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St. James City on the southern tip appears to have been hit the hardest, while Bokeelia on the north end suffered less. But the destruction is everywhere, and it breaks Wright's heart to see it.
She said this as she drove from one end of the island to the other Monday, through the four-way intersection where the road normally runs east back over a bridge to tiny Matlacha Island and then to the mainland. Both bridges are out, and authorities say it will take at least a week to get them fixed well enough for traffic to resume.
Under normal circumstances, leaving Pine Island for the mainland is not much more than a quick drive over bridges and then you're in Cape Coral, with Fort Myers a little farther down the road.
But now, the only access is by boat. Dozens of volunteers are ferrying donated supplies to the islands in private boats, working alongside the U.S. Coast Guard, which is managing the water-based evacuation of the island.
The people helping – boat captains, fishermen, area residents – say they're compelled to do something. Most of them are burning their own gas to operate; there's no government subsidy or fuel depot.
Depending on the day, a parade of party barges, airboats and jet skis join small speedboats in making the 2-mile float from ramps and docks on the mainland to the temporary staging area amid the rubble of the Yucatan Waterfront Bar and Grill, which sits next to the bridge from Pine Island to Matlacha.
Chase Hussey, 36, lost his home near Fort Myers Beach during the storm – he watched it float away from his neighbor's second-story window. He spent two days trying to clean up what was left, heartbroken to see his chainsaws and other debris removal tools destroyed.
Hussey, who owns Paradise Parasail, isn't sure how many of the company's boats survived the storm. But he dug out one of their smaller shuttle boats from his backyard, found some gas and hit the water.
“I said, 'If I don't do something I’m gonna lose my mind,'" Hussey said as parakeets tweeted an alarmingly similar sound to his boat's depth-gauge warning. "I don’t know what’s worse: having half of something or nothing. Because when you have nothing, you have to rebuild. You have no choice."
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'I wouldn't leave this island for anything'
Pine Island residents are now dealing with those same hard choices. Those whose homes survived face a long crawl back to normal. The power probably will be out for days. Intermittent water trickles from hoses and sinks, but you can't drink it. And longtime businesses won't be reopening until they rebuild, and even then, will the tourists come back?
More than 20 years ago, Wright left her glass factory job in Pennsylvania after watching manufacturing move to Mexico or overseas. She found her little slice of happiness on Pine Island after throwing a dart at a map, and until the storm, she made salads as a cook at the Blue Dog Bar & Grill on Matlacha.
She said the people who live on the islands are deliberately choosing a different life. They've escaped the rat race of the East Coast, the high taxes of California, and settled in a place where there's no strangers, just friends you haven't met yet.
Wright hopes the restaurant will reopen soon so she can get back to earning money. But she's not in a huge rush, she said. And it will probably be a while before tourists return to an island that everyone agrees is the closest thing you can get to the Florida Keys.
“Some of the little things you’ve gotta laugh at or you’ll go insane," she added as she drove past handwritten signs offering showers or hot meals.
After collecting cases of water and other supplies from the makeshift port by the Yucatan, Wright drove over to a friend's house. They left during the storm but returned soon after, firing up a generator for power and conserving water as best they can. Passing by a small artificial Christmas tree already set up, Wright delivered a cooler of ice and reminded her friends where to get hot meals being cooked by volunteers.
“We need to get back to some sense of living. Not normalcy. But some sense of living," she said. “I wouldn’t leave this island for anything. It becomes a part of you, in your blood."
And then she laughed.
"Plus, I don’t like the snow.”
'We're doing it ourselves'
Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday afternoon that repairs to the Pine Island bridge should be completed by the end of the week so debris can be cleared and linemen can get into start restoring power. But as of Monday, crews were still focusing on searching homes for missing people.
That focus was causing tension. Officials were encouraging island residents to leave so workers could more easily move around, remove the downed power lines and get the water system running again.
Although no one was being forced out – and no one was being stopped from returning – many island residents suspect the government is deliberately withholding aid to force them out. Several residents who previously evacuated said they came back to ensure their homes weren't condemned by authorities in their absence. (A request for comment to the Florida Emergency Management office was not immediately returned.)
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A handwritten sign posted at one of the supply distribution centers said the Federal Emergency Management Agency remains focused on the search and reiterates: "We are all here to help you. You are NOT being abandoned."
It doesn't feel that way to Scott Synol, 56, who has lived on the island for only a few months but quickly made it home. Monday, as Wright browsed the tables of supplies, Synol expressed his frustration.
“Do they not understand that we haven’t gotten a gallon of water from the government? Not a gallon of fuel," he said. “There’s a lot of people counting on us. They need help, so we're doing it ourselves."
Working 18-hour days in the hot sun with no air conditioning to retreat to, Synol put a voice to the frustrations of many island residents who just want to be home, regardless of the conditions.
In the hours after the storm passed, Synol and a group of men got permission to cut open storm-destroyed boats to siphon fuel for generators. A man whose semitractor-trailer was stuck on the island had been running his diesel engine to power a Starlink terminal, allowing people to connect to the internet via Elon Musk's satellite system in the small area around the damaged Bob and Annie's Boatyard on Stringfellow Road.
Synol said it's easy for outsiders to scoff at island residents, to say they should simply leave behind their homes and cars and belongings for an uncertain future on the mainland.
"There’s no rental cars. There’s no hotels. And people's lives are all here. So where are we going to go?” he asked. "If was there an earthquake in Haiti this morning, there would be a C-130 in the air immediately and they'd be unloading pallets of food and water in hours. But we get nothing. And we need help.”
'The most breathtaking thing'
Carrying a small bag of supplies she's collected, Wright hopped back into her van. She reiterated: Island residents are a different breed.
She detoured into the Flamingo Bay trailer park, home to hundreds of trailers, many of which were empty during the storm. Dozens of the homes were destroyed by the high winds, their patio roofs and siding torn away. Others were flooded when the storm surge rolled through.
“In some areas, it reminds me of a tornado," Wright said, pausing at a destroyed trailer where her best friend lived. "Some homes are totally destroyed and others have practically no damage.”
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Driving out of the park, Wright paused to watch as Curtis and Angela Eggleston carried their belongings out of their damaged trailer. They rode out the storm in their Jeep Wrangler after the trailer got damaged, parking snug up to a neighbor's concrete garage wall for safety.
Curtis Eggleston, 59, has lived on the island for 30 years. He said he wouldn't trade his life here for anything. He's already making plans to buy land and build a home. But first he needs to deal with this one.
He suspects their insurer will total it, and they're planning to leave the island to stay with Angela's dad on the mainland while they figure out their next steps. As they chatted with a reporter, Angela, 51, noticed it was 2 p.m., which meant the water might have been turned back on temporarily.
She grabbed the hose and a weak stream dribbled out. She rinsed off her muddy feet as the flow dripped to a halt.
"I guess it's not back yet," she said with a sigh.
On the plywood they've used to seal up their damaged home, the two have hung an American flag and spray-painted a big sign threatening to shoot looters. In addition to the house, they lost a car, a golf cart, a motorcycle and $50,000 in tools.
After remaining for days, they're reluctantly preparing to leave. Life on the island is hard when you can't flush the toilet or turn on the lights. The nightlife they loved is gone too.
"We’re getting things buttoned up, what little we have left," Curtis said. "The government doesn’t let you get much insurance on these things. I had a little bit, as much as I could get, but it’s certainly not enough to get another house.”
Wright said hello to the couple – she doesn't know them but suspects she's seen them around. And then she was back off to explore.
She had been so busy the first few days that she didn't make the time to visit the island's southern end. Without cellphone service, it was hard to check up on friends, so she was doing that in person.
“When you pull up for a friend's house that was totally underwater and you see them standing there and they’re digging through their stuff, you shed a tear, you give them a hug," she said. "But it’s the most breathtaking thing to see your friend. Because they’re alive.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pine Island after Hurricane Ian: Florida locals fight back amid damage