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Locals remember Charley’s devastation

August 18, 2009
By DREW WINCHESTER, dwinchester@breezenewspapers.com


If Cape Coral did escape Charley’s wrath, then Pine Island wasn’t as lucky. As one of the hardest hit areas in Lee county, Pine Island suffered damage that took years to repair.

Some say North Captiva took the brunt of the storm in Lee, but ask any Pine Islander and most will tell you that 50 percent of the island, and the lives of those who lived there, were destroyed.

One of those islanders was Marianne Paton, long-time editor for the Pine Island Eagle, a sister publication of The Breeze.

The roof of Paton’s home was torn off. There was nothing in the house that was salvageable. After the storm, the only things Paton had were the clothes on her back, her dog, and her car.

Recalling the first trip back to assess the damage she said, “It was a two-story wood frame house. There were five houses on the road, and the first three we passed had little damage ... When we got to our house, I got out of the car and I stepped over a ceiling fan. (After we went inside), I went up to the second floor, pushed a door open, and saw nothing but sky.”

Surprisingly, the roof didn’t survive the storm but something else did.

By some measure of divine intervention, or just plain luck, six zebra finches survived that, in her mad dash to make it out of the house, Paton had forgotten to grab.

“I could hear the birds chirping,” she said, after re-entering the house. “The first time I cried was when I saw them. And, I’ll tell you, I went to church the next day for the first time in 12 years.”

Paton speaks about the storm as a defining line for islanders. People think of their lives in terms of before, or after, Charley.

That line, in part, helps islanders to help measure their recovery, their losses, and maybe most importantly, their preparation efforts for the next storm.

Betsy Haesemeyer, of the Pine Island Long Term Recovery Effort, said the group is attempting determine what islanders did right, and what they did wrong.

As half of the island stayed, despite numerous warnings, Haesemeyer said that it had less to do with stubbornness than logistics.

“There were some who ended up going to our last shelters, but there were some who decided to wait it out,” she said. “where do I go? How do I go? That were the questions people were struggling with. They hadn’t done it enough, that was the problem.”

Transportation was at the heart of many of the islands problems, according to Haesemeyer.

Many didn’t have a way to make it off the island, nor did many people have anywhere to go once they did leave.

Though no lives were lost as a direct result of the storm, Haesemeyer and her crew have been working with Lee County and Red Cross officials to help institute a bus system that would take people off the island during evacuation orders, as well as off-island secondary shelters to provide islanders with a place to wait out a storm.

“We’re enhancing our performance from last time, and what we’re working on is prevention for the next one,” she added.

Marianne Paton admits she waited till the last minute to leave Pine Island. Reports had the storm tracking further north, toward the Tampa Bay area. When the storm suddenly, and dramatically, turned toward Charlotte and Lee counties, Paton had little time to evacuate.

She has moved six times — three in Bokeelia, one in the Cape, one in Matlacha, and finally in St. James City — while attempting to rebuild something of her former life.

Reflecting, she said she’s still “not where she was five years ago”, and might never be.

But she learned that the things she did lose was nothing but material, and that Pine Island, as a whole, would not let one of their own fall victim to the aftermath of the biggest natural disaster that Lee County had seen in half a century.

“Whether you fell victim to the storm or not, everyone still carries around a little scar,” she said. “But this was an opportunity for Pine Island to show their true spirit. I got so much support from my island neighbors.”
 
 

 

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