Pine Island evacuees help one another after Hurricane Ian destruction


FORT MYERS, Fla. — Agusto “Kiko” and Julia “Gordie” Villalon returned to Pine Island after fleeing Hurricane Ian, leaving just as the slow-moving storm’s winds and rain began to batter the island. Nearly a week later, they were on a boat back to their mobile home. 

They weren’t sure what they would find — they weren’t even sure their home would be there. 

Many who evacuated Cape Coral, Matlacha, and Pine Island are trickling back to check on their homes. Not all are returning to stay – some homes are unlivable right now, or can’t meet the needs of their owners, many of whom are older adults or disabled. 

More than a week ago, Hurricane Ian hit Pine Island, a vulnerable, coastline community of blue-collar workers and retired, older adults. At 155 miles an hour, its 60-mile-wide eyewall sat just off the coast of southwest Florida for hours, beating the area with wind, rain, and storm surge until it smashed in roofs and walls, snapped wooden telephone poles, dropped boat blocks from where they had been anchored, and floated cars and mobile homes.

Pine Island is about 40 square miles, and home to just about 8,500 people, according to the census. The median household income is about $53,000.

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Islanders lend each other a hand

On Pine Island, islanders have been making do and aiding one another in navigating how to return home, and how to get help.

Kevin and Jennifer Russell, who run the popular “Things to do on Pine Island” Facebook page, said that while there were many willing hands, volunteers were often turned back by Lee County Sheriff’s deputies or Coast Guard. Some were even threatened with arrest, said disaster relief nonprofit United Cajun Navy executive director Jennifer Leatherman-Toby.

“The system has just failed us,” Kevin Russell said. “We’ve been on our own.”

They added that anyone going back to Pine Island to check on their home should not post their address or photos online, in case looters are checking social media pages for places they know are empty and can steal from. 

“They know we’re hurting and we know they’re going to take advantage of us,” Russell said.

Nine people have been arrested for looting across the county, Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno said in a Thursday news  conference. It is not clear if any were on Pine Island.

“All you want to do right now is assess,” Kevin Russell said. “If you’re really in a good position, assess, then help everybody else,” Jennifer Russell added.

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‘We’re not going to find much’

Gordie and Kiko caught a ride with Jordyn Tantum and Lazaro “Laz” Ulpion, friends from the boating community. Although the Villalons were at least 40 years older than Tantum and Ulpion, they were easy in each others’ company.

“Their whole life is just boats, boats, boats, boats, boats,” said Ulpion, punctuating each “boats” with a nod of his head. 

All the way out, Gordie determinedly talked about boats, avoiding the subject of her home. She’d learned to sail as a child growing up in Rhode Island, thanks to her father, who served in the Navy. She’s kept it up her whole life. She talked about how she and Kiko used to sail their sailboat up the coast to Maine and spend summers there. 

“She was a long, narrow, fast sailboat,” Gordie reminisced. “11-foot beam, 56 feet overall, 72-foot wooden mast, a 9-foot keel.”

Kiko talked about his Ph.D. in engineering from the University of Havana, his career as a boat builder in Cuba, emigrating from Cuba to the U.S. in the face of Fidel Castro’s takeover of the country , and his first job in the U.S. — as a cow inseminator in northern Arkansas for one of the Rockefellers. 

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“I was the chief…” He mimed pulling rubber gloves up over his elbows and laughed. “Inseminator.”

Later, he said, he moved to Cape Coral, Florida, and started Marine Concepts, a boat design, engineering, and tooling company. He sold the business in 1994 and retired — though he now moonlights occasionally as an insurance claims adjuster for boats.

Uncertain about what remains

But beneath the stories was tension, and desperation to distract themselves. Both were worried about what they might encounter at their home. Was it still standing? Had it flooded? Had looters come through, as so often happens following hurricanes?

“We’re not going to find much,” Gordie predicted.

Gordie, who grew up in New England where hurricanes are frequent, was aghast at the fact that many didn’t leave the island. She and Kiko evacuated Tuesday afternoon.

“Hurricanes are so infrequent in recent years that people have no clue to the power of wind and water,” she said, as the boat pulled into the canal that would lead to their home. “And they don’t heed the warnings. If they say get off, get the hell off!”

When they evacuated, they took very little with them besides clothes, and a stuffed bunny named Big Bunny that Gordie kept in her purse. She’s had “Big” as she called him for about 40 years and was keeping him safe for her granddaughter. 

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“He’s the talisman,” she laughed. “You can’t do anything without him.” 

A number of people are heading back to check on their homes, and moving back if they find they can survive for now. 

Jay Johnson, who owns Bubba’s Roadhouse, said he’s seen a good amount of traffic on the waterways around Pine Island and Matlacha in recent days. 

“Everyone’s pretty much shell-shocked and just trying to figure out where they’re going to go from here,” he said. “The biggest thing about Pine Island and Matlacha is those are Islanders. They take pride in taking care of themselves and rebuilding and building their best life. And I know they’re going to do it now.”

Everything that can be salvaged

By the time they approached their home, the Villalons had fallen silent. 

They were very concerned their home wasn’t standing. Gordie wasn’t sure what they were walking into, and she wasn’t optimistic. Someone had sent them photos of their home and she wasn’t sure anything could be saved — she was reluctant to even walk inside.

“I don’t want to see what’s left,” she said, picking up pieces of broken glass and checking on various plants around her home as Ulpion and Kiko worked with a knife, a screwdriver, and the key to break into the front door. Wind and rain had swelled the door shut, and it was stuck tight. 

Once they broke open the door, though, they found that, overall, it wasn’t as bad as they had feared.

A window had exploded outwards — perhaps due to the barometric pressure — and their roof had leaked stormwater through various parts of their home. Some of their furniture was wet — a painting, and anything on the ground, including a goose-shaped lamp Gordie called their nightlight, and dozens of books. But by and large, their belongings were where they had left them.

Still, the process of documenting and decision-making was overwhelming at times for Kiko and Gordie. 

They approached the return differently. Kiko, thanks to his years as a claims adjuster, wanted to take pictures and extensive notes before making any decisions. Gordie just wanted to rescue her most sentimental items: a painting her granddaughter made for her; an award Kiko had received; some books her father had written. 

At times, they snapped at one another, natural tension resulting from a devastating, overwhelming situation. But throughout it all, they were there for one another. Gordie almost exclusively referred to Kiko as “my love” and anytime she called him, Kiko headed to her side.

Gathering treasures, and a toast

As Gordie created a pile of treasures she couldn’t bear to leave behind, Kiko took a quiet moment to himself to mourn the loss of not just his belongings, but the memories attached to them.

“Now, when you look around at things that are 60, 70 years old with me, I can’t tell you that it feels any good,” said Kiko, starting to cry. “No good.” He let out a heavy breath. 

Still, they had something to come back to. Some place to start from.

“Their house amazes me,” Tantum mused while she took a quick break after working with Ulpion to nail boards over the broken window. “The history here, for people who have been here 30, 40, 50 years.”

It had to be hard to deal with all the uncertainty, she said. 

Kiko celebrated the return home with a bottle of wine and toasted the friends who helped them along the way, including Ulpion and Tantum.

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“One thing I cannot stop talking [about] is how the friends have responded.”

He has had people from Spain, Paris, all over the U.S. calling and offering help. One friend even offered to bring his motor home to Pine Island and park it in Kiko’s driveway so the pair have a place to stay while they get their home back in order.

“I feel good,” Kiko said in Spanish, adding that he counted his blessings. “We’re gonna salvage everything that can be salvaged.”

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