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St. James City after Hurricane Ian

St. James City, which is on the southern tip of Pine Island, felt the fury of Hurricane Ian on Wednesday with 155-mile-per-hour winds and at least 10 feet of storm surge. By Saturday, the residents who stayed felt a different kind of fury, one of feeling abandoned and forced from their homes.  

There are almost 4,000 residents in St. James City and almost 2,000 on Bokeelia on the northern end of the island, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. All of them will be without electricity for months.  

Gulfshore Business toured parts of St. James City on Saturday, chartering a boat led by Tyler Carner of Indigenous Charters and fellow boat captains Court Douthit and Jamie Sullivan, who are affiliated with Captains for Clean Water. The nonprofit organization brought coolers of water and Gatorade and donated them.  

The Monroe Canal Marina, adjacent to Phuzzy’s Boat Shack, a closed bar and restaurant, transformed into a food and water distribution point, led by manager Staci Stevens.  

“We had 300 people come by last night,” Stevens said. “We’re probably going to do the same thing today.”  St. James City after Hurricane Ian

Bob and Annie’s Boatyard, also off Stringfellow Road, the island’s primary north-south thoroughfare, also had turned into a food and water distribution center. It became a grand central station for concerns among neighbors about their futures. The bridge to the island is out of service. Lee County officials were working on a plan to install a temporary bridge within 10 days; but it’s a short-term solution to the long-term issue of it being months, not weeks or days, before power can be restored to the island and a more permanent bridge can be designed and constructed.  

Captains for Clean Water, in addition to bringing supplies, also offered rides back to the mainland. They couldn’t find any takers.  

Erica and Andrew Gehring live in St. James City. With power outages, they couldn’t hear Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais’s pledge that “no one will be forced from their homes.”  

But Desjarlais did encourage all residents of Pine Island, Sanibel, Captiva, and Fort Myers Beach to leave their homes because supplying them with food and water isn’t sustainable.  

Erica Gehring said Lee County Sheriff’s Office deputies told her they would be leaving the island soon and not coming back for the foreseeable future.  

The Lee County Sheriff’s Office said Monday that it would not be pulling services from Pine Island, public information officer Anita Iriarte said. The agency said it has quadrupled its presence on Pine Island and orchestrated 100 National Guard personnel to be stationed there as well.

But what Iriarte said and what St. James City residents were being told by on-the-ground deputies were two different things.  St. James City after Hurricane Ian

“My concern is that the sheriff has announced that they are leaving,” Gehring said. “That is an invitation to looters. My concern is that when the law goes, the lawlessness comes. My government seems to be asking me to leave my perfectly inhabitable house with all of my supplies then take up the space in a shelter that someone needs much more than I do. I would like to stay in my home, but I do not want to have to defend myself. I would love for my government to help defend my property while they serve other people.”  

Greg Bates, another St. James City resident, lost the roof of his home but has a place to stay with a friend.  

“I’m trying to secure the house,” Bates said. “I’m trying to get tarps on it. But we have a septic system. We can get water supplies. This is crazy that they’re saying everyone has to leave their property.”  

“We pay taxes. Everybody invests their whole life savings to live here. We pay for their services to help us. We just feel abandoned here. And there are a ton of people out here. I’ve invested everything I have. If I leave, and it’s announced that the sheriff pulled out, nothing is going to survive. There’s going to be looters everywhere. They’re going to come out here, and they’re going to empty out everything that’s worth anything.”  

Floating along Monroe Canal, which runs east and west along the southern end of Pine Island, revealed the disaster. Hurricane Ian’s winds littered a bank of mangrove trees with debris. County-issued garbage cans, fences, boats, plastic wrapping, Adirondack chairs and all sorts of other items were dangling from the mangroves.  St. James City after Hurricane Ian

There was a catamaran that had left the canal and landed on its side, crushing the remains of the house behind it.  

There were boats upside down and, in the water, and boats right-side up, deposited on the ground.  

There were roofs completely caved in and houses that seemed fine adjacent to one another.  

“It’s amazing the randomness of the destruction,” Court Douthit said as the boat passed by wreckage after wreckage. “There’s no rhyme or reason to it.”  

Despite the mess, residents like Bates had no plans to leave.  

“I’m going to stay as long as I can,” Bates said. “They’re not going to force me out. When I leave, it will be my choice.” 

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