On Friday, Aug. 13, five years ago, island residents were glued to the Weather Channel to keep an eye on the third named storm of the 2004 hurricane season. While many island residents braced for the storm by securing their homes, boarding up windows and considering evacuation, much of the general atmosphere around the island was relaxed in nature as just the evening before, newscasters predicted that the island would be spared and the hurricane was tracking northward to Tampa Bay.
All of that changed in an instant as the eye of the storm began to “wobble” and made straight for Pine Island. Within a few short hours, much of the island was left in ruin and while help from the mainland was slow to arrive, those remaining on the island flew into action and it was a genuine situation of neighbor helping neighbor as temporary shelters for storm victims were opened in island churches where people were housed, fed and comforted as damages were assessed and the recovery process began.
Today very few signs of the storm remain, only hidden scars, and those living on the island have come a long way with regard to preparedness in the event of another Charley.
Among the first to organize within weeks after the storm was a group of clergy, along with other island leaders, who formed the Pine Island Long Term Recovery Organization (PILTRO). This group realized that even after the roads were cleared of debris, utility poles were righted and power restored, the work of recovery for many island residents was only beginning. PILTRO saw to it that other needs were met by setting up a network to provide financial assistance as well as shelter, clothing, meals, ice, water and dozens of other necessities.
In addition, PILTRO also assisted with helping people file claims with FEMA, attaining assistance from the Red Cross and Salvation Army and dealing with insurance companies. PILTRO also created the Beacon of HOPE to continue this kind of support even after other agencies left the island. PILTRO provided not only physical support by helping to repair damaged the group is still an important part of the island society, in some respects, the organization has changed its focus.
While maintaining a data base of the residents of the island to be used by first responders in the event of a disaster and providing hurricane preparedness information, PILTRO continues to assist residents in need. Among the responsibilities assumed by PILTRO are the Meals on Wheels program as well as assistance with job hunting, applying for food stamps and filing for Social Security benefits. The Beacon also serves as a thrift store and often provides housewares, furniture and clothing at a minimal cost. Many times the Beacon has provided those preparing for job interviews with a new outfit to ensure a good first impression for a potential employer or will allow those who cannot afford items to work off the cost by agreeing to work volunteer hours in exchange.
Sheri Dube has been with the Beacon from the onset of PILTRO and believes the island saw an employment boom after Hurricane Charley but it was short-lived.
“After Hurricane Charley, we were riding an elevated high. A lot of people who were out of work before the hurricane suddenly found a job, but when the repairs and clean up were done, these jobs dried up,” said Dube. “This is why our focus has changed at the Beacon. We now spend a lot of time helping people with unemployment compensation issues and trying to help them find new jobs. Unfortunately our job base here on the island is very limited and leaving the island for work is difficult if not impossible for some people.”
Betsy Haesemeyer with PILTRO has teamed with other organizations to discuss what valuable lessons were learned as a result of the 2004 storm.
“One of the people who has joined our group is Ron Lueth, who is retired military. He said that in the military it is typical to revisit a recent situation to determine what worked and what didn’t. That is what we are doing now,” said Haesemeyer. “What we have discovered is that in a time of crisis, we have a lot of people willing to help, but after Hurricane Charley we were unprepared and while we had all this great help, we didn’t know what to do with it.
“We also learned that donations from other areas needed to be coordinated better so that they would be put to the best use,” she continued. “We also determined that we didn’t get enough people off of the island before the storm and this is one area which we have recently addressed.”
Recently PILTRO has worked with LeeTran to ensure that if there is an evacuation called for the island, bus shuttles will be provided, however, these buses will not go to the only pet friendly shelter in the county and that is yet another issue of concern for PILTRO.
“We know that a lot of people will not leave their pets behind. The reason being is that every pet that goes to a shelter must be kept in a cage and be current on all of their shots. For many of these people, they simply cannot afford to purchase a cage or get their animals vaccinated. We are now looking into ways of perhaps helping these people with the needs for their pets,” said Haesemeyer. “All in all I do believe we have gotten a little bit better with regard to hurricane preparedness and we have trained people in place to manage shelters for after the storm here on the island. My biggest concern right now, however, is complacency. Our goal is to be as prepared as possible, but this can only be accomplished if everyone is prepared and has a plan for themselves and their families in the event of an emergency.”
Haesemyer also said that she is willing to address groups with regard to the bus evacuation system. Haesemyer can be reached at Pine Island Growers, 282-0394.
Fact BoxBus Evacuation pick-up locations
In the event of an evacuation, LeeTran will dispatch buses to Pine Island to ensure the safe evacuation of island residents. The evacuation pick-up locations are as follows:
— Intersection of Raymary Street and Stringfellow Road in Bokeelia
— Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Catholic Church in Bokeelia
— Winn-Dixie parking lot on Stringfellow Road in St. James City
— Flamingo Bay parking lot on Stringfellow Road in St. James City
— VFW parking lot on Stringfellow Road in St. James City
— Matlacha Community Park in Matlacha
Charley By the Numbers
— $14.6 billion: damage over five counties: Lee, Charlotte,
Hardee, Desoto, and Collier
— 29: deaths in Florida, 20 indirect, 9 direct
— 150 mph: Top wind speeds making landfall
as a Category 4 storm
— 75 percent: LCEC customers lost power in Lee County