FORT MYERS, Fla. (WSVN) — As U.S. Coast Guard crews continue their mission to rescue residents of southwest Florida, survivors who were completely cut off from the mainland by Hurricane Ian shared harrowing stories of survival.
Drivers heading to the village of Matlacha in the west coast of the state find that, in the wake of the powerful storm there is only so far they can go.
Bridges are caved in, and debris litters the road, blocking access to other connected islands like St. James City, Pine Island and Bokeelia.
And so, people are being rescued by boat, like Marty and Elvira.
“Well we wanted to stay there,” said Marty, “because that’s our home. We’ve been there for 33 years.”
Their home was fine, but firefighters came by to pick them up and take them to what the Coast Guard has dubbed the “safety ferry.”
7News on Sunday joined Coast Guard officers based in Miami who came to the west coast to help during this disaster.
Coast Guard officials said each day it gets a little easier, and they’ll remain there as support for as long as they’re needed.
From the water, buildings are seen barely holding on, now just distant memories for those who called the island home.
The main priority for rescue crews is evacuating as many people as possible.
Crews are shuttling people from all across the different barrier islands to a central area near Matlacha, because this is the one place where all the rescue missions can grab them and then take them back to the mainland, dry them off and give them medical attention.
Some of the people who spoke with 7News said they didn’t want to leave; they just wanted supplies.
Others, however, were more than ready to leave.
Nancy Vanhootegem’s dogs, Theodore and Beast, were exhausted from the heat, and so was she. She suffered cracked ribs from holding her doors shut for six hours while the storm surge flooded her home.
“I was very happy when the firemen showed up at my door today, very happy,” she said, “I was so excited, I didn’t even know where to throw my suitcase.”
Amid the wreckage, locals have put up makeshift bridges.
Sinkholes have swallowed up several homes, leaving residents in disbelief.
“I had one bag over my shoulder with everything I needed in it,” said resident Randy Taylor.
Taylor said he made one call during the hurricane, to his wife in Miami.
“To tell her I’ll always love her,” he said.
Taylor made it alive, but he said he’s not leaving the island just yet.
“No. I’m an islander,” he said.
Now, whether these islanders are taking the help from Coast Guard or staying out, some said they’ve learned a lesson.
“It’s really not worth it,” said Taylor.
“Whether you got a dog full of cancer that can barely walk or whatever, just get out,” said Vanhootegem.
Local officials are facing criticism about waiting until 24 hours before Ian made landfall to issue mandatory evacuation orders, a day after other surrounding counties issued their orders.
Speaking at a news conference held Sunday afternoon, Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno defended their decision.
“Respectfully I say, because of that projected path, we were not even in the cone, and the storm was slow-moving, about 9 miles an hour, although it packed a horrific punch,” he said. “The second that we could and should issue that order, I’m confident that we did. Again, we wouldn’t change anything, and I also understand that there are some people that don’t want to leave their homes. We cannot force them to leave their homes — that’s their homes — but we can do everything we can and educate them and make sure they’re aware of what’s coming their way.”
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