Residents and businesses share their progress after Hurricane Ian



By SAMANTHA NEELY, Fort Myers News-Press

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — For Sara Lee Brinks, Ian was the first hurricane she had ever experienced.

Native Michiganthe owner of Pine Island’s Frozen Flip Flop said that at first she wasn’t worried about Ian, but it turned out to be unlike anything she’s been through.

After checking out his store, Brinks is now working to get himself and his community back to normal.

Like Brinks, several Pine Island residents, businesses and officials are on a mission to get back to normal, aiming to build back better just over a month after the storm.

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Pine Island suffered immense damage in the Category 4 storm, ripping out trees, telephone poles and roofs, as well as demolishing homes and businesses.

From Bokeelia to St. James City, residents of the 17-mile-long unincorporated island have been working tirelessly in the weeks since September 28 to clear debris from their properties and begin restoration efforts. The island has restored electricity and water.

While Ian’s 155mph winds and nearly 12ft storm surge swept through and left physical scars on the area, there was no damage to the sense of community and spirit of the island. From delivering meals to first responders to planning events to raise money for those in need, the Pine Islanders have stepped up to help each other on the road to recovery.

Progress after a month and more

For Cynthia Welch, board member of the Pine Island Chamber of Commerce, the recovery process has been “ongoing but amazing to watch.”

“Right from the initial clearing of our roads before we even had a bridge, our islanders were doing all of this so that by the time we got our road back, (Lee County Electric Cooperative) and their cohorts that they brought out could actually get out here and start,” Welch said. “It was a huge step in the right direction right off the bat. A lot of people kind of forget that… our roads were clear before we ever had help from anyone outside.

After Ian’s hit, Welch describes the devastation as breathtaking, saying it was hard to watch at first. However, she applauds the strength of the community to come together.

Just over a month later, it was their strength that allowed Pine Island to recover as quickly as it did.

“Most of our businesses are back open at one level or another and functioning,” Welch said, with more than half of their 200-plus members back and running. “People are going about their daily business and cleaning, picking up and fixing their roofs, siding and everything else. It’s amazing in just one month to see the difference.

Through all the tragedy and destruction, Welch said there was no shortage of neighbors helping neighbors and great people coming out to support the community.

“From the linemen who came from God knows where to the volunteers who came to help, the people who donated things to help those who lost everything… the hot meals were a godsend for everyone when you try to do everything else,” Welch said. “All of this just gives you faith that good people are out there, and then when the going gets tough, people come together to help each other.”

Businesses reopen, give back after Ian

Brink had just opened his frozen yoghurt shop, located in the middle of Stringfellow Road, in July this year.

She said she joined the Pine Island community permanently in 2020, opening her shop two years later after polling locals to see what they wanted.

“During the high season we can’t leave the island, that road is just blocked. The only two responses I got were coffee and ice cream,” Brink said. type 2 was rampant here, I thought frozen yogurt was lower in fat and sugar, so I thought frozen yogurt would be a good idea.”

When she learned of Ian’s impending path to the southwest Florida, she said she honestly wasn’t nervous at all. She packed her bags to return to her native Michigan, but decided to stay after hearing from neighbors and reassured customers.

“When (the neighbors) invited me there (for shelter), I felt very safe until the wave, and then we rushed to the nearby stilt house in the wave,” said Brinks. “And then I got sick from the floods. I remember shivering, it was so cold that night. When we came back through the flood waters to the original house, we all got sick.

To go out the next day and see the damage done to his newly found community was “heartbreaking”. Fortunately, his yogurt shop suffered little to no damage.

For three weeks, she only reopened for one day, handing out ice cream to first responders and residents. Now it is completely open again.

A few yards away, another newcomer to the Pine Island restaurant scene, Fine Swine owner Brian Crowley, was not so lucky with the hurricane damage.

His restaurant, which opened last January, suffered roof and floor damage, as well as part of its ventilation system blown off the roof. His food truck was also moved ten feet from where it is normally parked on their lot.

Still, Crowley said he felt lucky compared to his neighbors.

“I was pretty happy it was in the condition it was in because we first came by boat as there was no road the first thing we saw were homes and our community in St. James City…it was just mangled,” Crowley said. “So many people have lost so much. There are people who have literally lost everything. to help.

Working out of the food truck after it was repositioned, Crowley resumed serving meals to the community on November 2.

“We had a really, really good response… people just come in and talk to each other and hang out. We have beer on the patio, so you can hang out on the patio,” Crowley said. “We can’t open inside yet, but you can at least have a cold beer and hang out and talk to your neighbors.”

The Fine Swine even held a hurricane benefit concert to rebuild Pine Island in its restaurant parking lot on October 16. He estimates that he served more than 1,200 meals to residents and first responders.

Beyond the heart of Pine Island, other parts of the island were completely decimated by Ian.

At the southern tip, the famous fishing town of St. James City is normally home to several eclectic restaurants, boutiques and art galleries.

As of now, a tragic mix of debris and dirt lines Stringfellow Road and surrounding city streets, as if a bomb had gone off in the middle of town.

The Low Key Tiki was one of the victims of the storms. Loved not only by the Pine Island community but by those around the world, the restaurant has captured the hearts of diners since 19XX.

After Ian, the restaurant was damaged by three feet of flooding, losing all of its main kitchen equipment.

Despite the damage, owner Johnnie Smith said he and his staff reopened soon after and have been serving meals to residents since “day one” after the storm.

The Low Key Tiki is currently undergoing renovations and is scheduled to close from November 8 for repairs.

“Stronger Than the Breaking Wave”

The road to recovery is long for Pine Island, but it is accelerating thanks to the dedication of the inhabitants.

For residents who have experienced the unimaginable over the past month, Brinks said they appreciated the hint of normalcy.

“Everyone is so supportive. People come here and when they come in they say, ‘Oh my God, we needed this, it’s like nothing happened,’ Brinks said. “Or they will come in and cry. All they need are hugs or they’ll come in and sit down and unravel. And then they’ll thank me for letting them blow off steam because they just have to get it out.

Brinks and Crowley continue to provide aid and participate in events to aid recovery efforts. Brinks said she was preparing her shop to begin serving a hot breakfast to residents, while Crowley planned to serve meals at a Pine Island benefit in preparation for Nov. 19.

As for the chamber, Wells said their next steps are to collect responses from their correspondence to all of their members, noting when businesses expect to be open. While some businesses have already reopened, they expect others, particularly in St. James City and Matlacha, to take a while before opening their doors.

From there, they plan to do a local advertising campaign in the coming months to encourage locals to take day trips to the island. For now, they don’t exactly recommend traveling.

“We’re not discouraging anyone from coming out right now, but we’re not really encouraging everyone either because we still have a lot of work to do,” Welch said.

Welch encourages the slogan “Stronger than the surge”, promoting the positive spirit of the islanders.

“There are so many heartbreaking stories of people who have lost everything… their homes and their businesses, and then you talk to them, and they have such a positive attitude about rebuilding and the future,” Welch said. “So I think that’s everybody’s attitude. (It sticks with me).

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