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Recovery begins after Hurricane Irma

September 20, 2017
By ED FRANKS ( , Pine Island Eagle

Last Saturday afternoon the winds of Hurricane Irma began to affect Pine Island. News reports of the devastation Irma inflicted on the Caribbean islands, Florida Keys and Naples frightened Pine Islanders enough to for many of them to evacuate.

A few, like Ralph Brookhart, a resident of Pine Island Cove, planned to stay.

"I planned on staying on the island and sitting out the storm," Brookhart said. "As the weather reports kept getting more and more serious I decided to see if I could get some gas to drive to the east coast. I drove out Pine Island Road all the way to Route 41 and then went south 25 minutes past the airport using up a lot of gas. When I didn't find any I started to get nervous about being stuck in the Everglades and came back to my house at Pine Island Cove."

Along with a few others Brookhart stayed in his small home.

"Thank God this storm wasn't as bad as the weather guys predicted," Brookhart said. "Other than the noise coming from the wind going through the carport it wasn't too bad. Other homeowners in Pine Island Cove had more damage and one had their carport sail all the way across the canal."

Woodstock Road residents Dave and Mary Grueser live near Woodstock Airport owners Joe and Ila Valcarcel.

"The house the Valcarcels own at the airport is solid concrete and can withstand almost any hurricane," Dave Grueser said. "We rode out the hurricane there."

"Hurricane Irma, with all her changes in direction, thank God weakened before she got here," Grueser said. "We lost come carports and trees in the area but thankfully no one was injured or worse. Pine Island really dodged a bullet - if Irma had come up the coast over water the damage would have been much worse."

Scott and Elsie Stearns gathered the entire family at their son Derik's house. The house was recently built and was constructed to withstand a hurricane.

"I would not have stayed in my house because it's 38 years old," Elsie Stearns said. "My son's house is only about a year old and built to updated 2017 building codes. We knew it was one of the safest houses on the island."

The Stearns family was undecided whether to stay or leave the island until weather reports indicated that there was no place to hide from this huge storm.

"News reports were saying that Hurricane Irma is the strongest hurricane to hit the Atlantic," Stearns said. "While we're not experts we had been through Hurricane Charley. I wasn't worried about the winds I worried about the surge. I guess it was Saturday when the weather people began reporting the possibility of a 9-foot surge we made our decision to stay at Derek's house."

"During the storm the men monitored the news while we kept the grandchildren occupied," Stearns said. "The day of the storm was the longest day of our lives but the lesson I took away from all of this is to have a plan and stick to it. Our family has a very strong bond and I'm happy we were all together."

Betsy Haesemeyer, director of the Beacon of HOPE, chose to leave the island.

Lee County Emergency Operations met with the Fire Department and the Beacon of HOPE team the Tuesday before the storm.

"We met with the county last Tuesday and established our plan," Haesemeyer said. "Collectively we identified both individuals and groups that would be most at-risk and by Thursday we set up our teams with the Wellness Committee. While the Fire Department drove through the streets announcing the mandatory evacuation the Beacon team went around knocking on doors and handed a flyer telling them what to do to evacuate."

Working closely with the Fire Department, Lee County Sheriff's and Lee-Tran the Beacon arranged to have several people evacuated.

"Our social worker partner at the Beacon has a condo in Fort Myers that she offered to us so at the last minute we left," Haesemeyer said. "We stayed on the third or fourth floor high and dry for the duration of the storm. We only lost power and AC for about 10 hours and then it came back on. We were better off than most."

Haesemeyer spent the days after the storm working the United Way 211 lines for EOC.

"It's quite an experience answering those phones from people in need for 8 hours," Haesemeyer said. "It's a very hard job."

"One thing I am very disappointed with is some of the facilities on Pine Island that offered themselves as shelters when they're not sanctioned by the county," Haesemeyer said. "Once winds reach a sustained 45 mph there's no fire, no police and no EMS. If someone needed assistance at one of these 'shelters' there's no help for them. I understand they're thinking with their heart and not thinking with their head. I don't think it's wise to offer that to people - it confuses them and is in opposition of what the county is telling people"

"On the positive side I can see a tremendous difference from when Hurricane Charley struck Pine Island," Haesemeyer said. "Everyone was working much better and in unison this time. There was complete cooperation among the different groups to get things done. The Fire Department, Sheriff's Department, Lee-Tran, United Way, the County, everyone. It makes you feel good and safe knowing how everyone worked so well together."

"With the devastation others felt, millions of people without power, flooding and even some deaths Pine Island came out better than expected," Haesemeyer said.



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