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He survived Ian on Pine Island. Then his granddaughter lost contact

Oct. 3, 2022 Updated Mon., Oct. 3, 2022 at 11:56 a.m.

By Hannah Critchfield Tampa Bay Times

PINE ISLAND, Fla. — Rocky Lane spoke to his granddaughter through sobs.

Supplies were dwindling in his powerless apartment on Pine Island, a Southwest Florida island near Fort Myers. The 81-year-old was running out of water, he told his granddaughter Stephanie Williams on Saturday. Food was close behind.

There were rumors of evacuation sites on the island — where about half the residents are 65 or older — but Lane, who is physically impaired, had no way to reach them.

Then the line died. Williams’ attempts to reach her grandfather were met by silence.

Hurricane Ian has cut Pine Island off from the rest of the world. Islanders feel it.

In neighboring Matlacha, the only bridge into Pine Island collapsed. It’s now unreachable by car, leaving residents stranded.

Gone is Wi-Fi or cellphone service. Florida’s largest Gulf Coast island lacks streets or drinkable water. One resident said the area looked like the movie “Mad Max.”

Until Saturday, many residents said they hadn’t seen a single news crew. Or any law enforcement, let alone federal agency workers.

When news reached them, it wasn’t promising: Emergency supplies wouldn’t be sent to the downtrodden community. Local officials instead told them to evacuate by the end of the week, islanders said.

Services would shut off in an area that had become virtually uninhabitable.

But with the only bridge into town gone, evacuees spent the weekend scrambling to get information and relying on an ad hoc network of help — from good Samaritans with working boats to overburdened local and federal officials.

A tricky search

Richard Lane, whose Navy buddies nicknamed him after Western actor Allan “Rocky” Lane, always kept a pack of Marlboro cigarettes on hand.

He’d been extremely proud that his granddaughter served in the Navy. Like many of the older residents on Pine Island, he’d lived through hurricanes before.

He told his family up north that he’d be fine. Besides, the storm was headed for Tampa Bay.

By Saturday morning, Williams, 25, who is currently in Ohio, had called every law enforcement agency she could imagine.

She posted her grandpa’s address on Pine Island Facebook groups. In doing so, she joined a chorus of others who had turned to the platform in a desperate attempt to reach trapped family members.

The Lee County Sheriff’s Office said they would try to find him. But they could not guarantee when they’d make it to her grandfather’s house.

On the island, as the sun began to burn away any chill left over by the hurricane, the force of the storm’s destruction came into stark view.

Whole roofs pierced the tops of neighboring mobile homes. Thirty-thousand-dollar houses now resembled children’s construction projects, their raw materials scattering yards like Lincoln Logs.

Volunteers from nearby fishing villages ferried residents off the island in their personal boats.

But on a 16-mile strip of land, reaching an exit dock proved challenging for many residents.

Past the bridge, whose shattered pieces folded into the harbor like someone dipping a cracker in milk, lay the highway into Pine Island.

Power lines, snapped for miles on end, rendered it a one-lane. Older adults rolled suitcases on the side of the road, hoping to catch a ride to an exit point.

A crimson car sat in the middle of the throughway, where it would remain, lights flashing, well after dark.

Officials from the sheriff’s office, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission gathered at the island’s fire department to help with evacuation efforts.

But by the evening, Williams still hadn’t heard from sheriff’s deputies, or anyone else, about her grandfather.

Last boat off the island

The Coast Guard was doing what they could.

Until earlier that day, they lacked transportation to maneuver around the debris-laden island.

Then, a veteran they rescued from the rubble was flown out by a helicopter, needing immediate medical attention. He loaned them the keys to his silver Ford pickup.

“I did response after Katrina,” said Julian Bell, chief warrant officer for the Coast Guard. “This is worse.”

They drove to check on a woman’s aunt, who’d been silent since the storm. Nancy Freeman, 75, on the other hand, and her neighbor, Carol Schoenlub, 79, were standing unharmed on the porch of their waterside home.

“I can’t be ready to leave by tomorrow,” Schoenlub said. “When is the last time that they’re going off the island?”

“I haven’t heard a specific time frame, but the sooner the better,” said crew member Cristian Cruz.

“Why don’t they tell you?” Freeman asked. “I’m down here, and I haven’t heard a word.”

“That’s because the communication, ma’am, is horrible,” Cruz said.

“That’s because we’re not Fort Myers,” Freeman replied.

Bell finally said: “I just don’t want you guys to make a decision to leave and have it be too late to get off the island safely.”

“We’ll try our best to come back to check on you,” he added. “But there’s no guarantees.”

The sun was setting. The last evacuation boats were leaving Pine Island.

The Coast Guard members decided to attempt one last rescue mission. They’d forgo their ride off the island and sleep in the borrowed car that night.

They headed to an address in Bokeelia. The house was open, but empty. They knocked on neighbors’ doors to no avail.

Suddenly, Lane, wearing a gray “Pine Island” shirt, emerged from the car in his driveway.

After more than 24 hours of silence, Lane spoke to his granddaughter through sobs.

With a sweater and suitcase in hand, he was on the last boat out of Pine Island.

He grumbled at the sound of hundreds of text messages coming into his cellphone, but painstakingly replied to each one. He humored at least three “Rocky” jokes on the ride, standing with the volunteer captain and raising a fist — a nod to Rocky Balboa — as the boat passed by the destroyed bridge.

“We’re coming to get you,” Williams said over the phone. “You’re coming to Ohio. You’re getting out of here.”

Lane buried his head in his hands. “Wow, this is brutal.”

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