This story has been updated with comment from Lee County Sheriff's Office.
When Hurricane Ian slammed into Pine Island at 155 mph Tuesday, the "Things to do in Pine Island" Facebook page creators and administrators Jennifer and Kevin Russell knew they were going to be up all night making sure their friends and neighbors had a way to communicate and search out information.
Seven days later, they say, they still haven’t really slept. They formed one channel on walkie-talkie-esque app Zello to communicate with the public and organize logistics, and worked with local volunteers to set up drop points, pick up supplies and check on residents who were alone, elderly, or potentially trapped. Or all three.
As the days wore on, response from the local government became increasingly frustrating to the Russells, Pine Island residents, and volunteers working with them. They say that the local and federal agencies that have shown up on Pine Island to help have ignored requests from islanders to check on neighbors, responded rudely when asked for help, and worst of all, prevented volunteers from running supplies out to the island.
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They worry it means people on their island are dehydrated, starving, or even dead due to lack of intervention.
“The system has just failed us,” said Jennifer. “We’ve been on our own.”
A running list of incidents
Jennifer said she has a running list of at least 10 people who had been turned back by local law enforcement, and a list of 10 others who reported the same thing happening to people they knew.
“Every time we had some Navy guys calling us, military, guys that are trained to do this, [volunteers] on boats who know the local waters … we’ve had reports of Lee County Sheriff’s Office turning people back,” Kevin Russell said. “The county is saying they are not doing that, but when officials lie, we have a major problem.”
“They can’t possibly have a good reason for that,” said Jennifer. “Not when they were there for us in the first days when the county had its head up its a**. I’m just sick over it. We both are. Emotionally, this has taken a toll on us.”
After the original publication of this article, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office responded to a request for comment about residents and volunteers reporting being turned away from the island.
"Access through Matlacha was prohibited due to the collapsed roadway," wrote Public Affairs Captain Anita Iriarte. "We are not prohibiting donations. Supplies are being coordinated by other agencies such as FEMA."
'We don't need your help'
Dillon St. Leger helped man the logistics and public information channels the Russells had set up, and what he learned through his efforts shocked him.
“It seems like there was a lot of oversight,” St. Leger said. “There was no real command center and then when people started to say they wanted to come and help, it was ‘Oh no, we don’t need your help.’
“And when people want to bring water or ice, they’re told they can’t go, turned around from D&D Marina.”
Even the Williamson Brothers, local marine contractors, were turned around by the U.S. Coast Guard and Lee County Sheriff’s Office when they tried to bring 1,000 gallons of gasoline over, St. Leger said.
“It was constant.”
Cajun Navy turned away
Twice Tuesday morning, Lee County Sheriff’s Office turned back volunteers from running supplies out to Pine Island and threatened them with arrest, said United Cajun Navy executive director Jennifer Leatherman-Toby.
Leatherman-Toby, who has been with the disaster relief nonprofit for five years, said this has happened more than a dozen times to her crews in the last two days. She was baffled by the reception from Lee County officials, especially since Gov. Ron DeSantis had welcomed them warmly.
The consequences, she warned, could be death.
“A lot of these people could be hurt, starving, dehydrated,” said Leatherman-Toby. “We found a few [seniors] completely delirious, wandering the streets. That’s our biggest concern: people that are trapped inside their houses, scared to leave. Hiding.
“It’s just the worst-case scenario at this point.”
She said she’s never experienced this before, and reached out to the local county government to try and set up a working relationship. So far, Leatherman-Toby said, it hasn’t materialized.
“We have very skilled special ops teams, horseback teams, we have the best of the best SAR (Search and Rescue) teams on the ground,” said Leatherman-Toby. “This is what we do. We should be able to work with the local law enforcement and local government like we have in Alabama, Louisiana, Houston.
“We usually are welcomed by the local government and law enforcement, but in this case, we have been turned away at every corner we’ve come around.”
‘If this is political, people are going to die’
Matlacha resident Jon Hunt said many residents had given up asking agencies for help because they wouldn’t give it. He recalled a past hurricane where the sheriff showed up on television “looking like everybody else:” dirty, rumpled, and exhausted. That sheriff, he said, had been out helping people.
Now, “we had the sheriff (Carmine Marceno) show up on TV with hair gel, a fresh-pressed shirt and all his medals on,” said Hunt.
“I don’t hate the sheriff,” Hunt said, but “every day he shows up on the TV talking about disaster preparedness. People are hurting and he’s throwing it back in their face. We’re looking out for our neighbors. We’re trying to make sure people are OK. What they need is sheets of plywood. What they need is gasoline. What they need is stuff starting to turn their homes around. They don’t need people sitting around.”
The Russells hoped that local officials and the Lee County Sheriff’s Office could find a way to work with volunteers and the United Cajun Navy in order to save lives.
“We have a very small window to get this information out and how we can correct it,” said Kevin. “If this is political, people are going to die.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Jennifer and Kevin Russell's surnames.
Kate Cimini is an investigative journalist covering Florida. Share your story at (239) 207-9369 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Pine Island residents: Lee County Sheriff’s Office refused Ian help