Home / Firefighters, part-time residents describe rescues, repairs on Sanibel

Firefighters, part-time residents describe rescues, repairs on Sanibel

Reporter: Taylor Petras Writer: Joey Pellegrino
Published: Updated:

Most of Sanibel is still unrecognizable one month after Hurricane Ian. The former vacation destination once filled with tourists and snowbirds is now awash with workers, like the firefighters who have been busy there since the first evacuations.

Sanibel firefighters tried to return later the same night they evacuated the island for the storm, but Capt. John Dimaria says he never expected the causeway would collapse. They had to get there by boat to start rescuing the people who rode out the storm on Sanibel, over 1,000 of them.

Dimaria took WINK News around the island on Wednesday. He explained what it was like to have to wait to respond until the storm calmed down and what some of the challenges were while going door to door to rescue people.

“It was tough for the most part,” Dimaria said. “The ones that we could gain access to was fairly easy and helping get their belongings and getting them off the island. The ones that we had to try to make our way through was a little bit tougher, and we eventually made our way through and eventually got them off… chainsaws, you know, heavy equipment. Trying to get their driveways cleared so we could get them out safely.”

Rubble lies scattered along the road on Sanibel, Wednesday, October 26, 2022. Credit: WINK news

Sanibel’s fire stations weren’t spared from the storm. One of them had 5 to 6 feet of water inside. The firefighters don’t know if it can be saved, so they are all operating out of a single station for the time being. Dimaria says they’re now responding to more repair-related injuries because so many linemen and contractors are on Sanibel. Fire crews also hope to prevent incidents like the massive fire from a couple of weeks ago, in which more than a dozen electric golf carts burst into flames.

“We have just completed an electrical vehicle removal mission, which included removing 209 electric vehicles from homes to ensure we were protecting properties,” said Sanibel Fire Chief Kevin Barbot. “We have spared all properties from being damaged, but that hasn’t stopped electric vehicles from catching on fire. We had one yesterday. Our call volume has definitely changed in what we are handling, but we’re ready, we’re here and we’ll take care of it.”

Some final numbers from the Sanibel Fire Control and Rescue District: Urban search and rescue teams assessed 5,126 structures. 33 were destroyed, nearly 2,200 had major damage and more than 2,500 had minor damage.

Woodie and Andrea were two of the people WINK ran into while accompanying the fire department on a tour of Sanibel. They were headed back to Boston after spending nearly two weeks throwing out everything inside their home.

“We waited for a few days, then tried to assess whether we could come down,” Woodie said. “Talked to a number of people. They said, once we get a way, to get on the island. Well, that took a while. We’ve been here for 12 days; six of them were by boat at a pretty good expense. But we found a way now, since the causeway opened and we’re staying with some friends in Naples, thank God. So, we have food and we have lodging, but a lot of people here, this is their first home, and I feel so badly for the people that are now displaced and have no place to go. We do, so we’re fortunate.”

“It was beautiful and peaceful and serene, and it was our sanctuary,” Andrea said of the island. “As it is for the birds and turtles and the other wildlife and the other people on this island. It’s so sad to see the devastation for us and mostly for the people who are here full-time. And the wildlife that lives here. It’s just very, very hard.”

“It’s hard to see your whole front lawn, your whole house on your front lawn,” Woodie said. “I think that’s the point that finally got to us.”

An intact roof sits atop the remains of a house on Sanibel, Wednesday, October 26, 2022. Credit: WINK News

They described the wreckage they found upon returning to the house, filled with mold and crumbling cabinets.

“Over 3 1/2 feet of water inside the house,” Woodie said. “The swelling… they thought the swell here was 9 feet. It was over the garage door, initially. The garage door held a lot of water out, but we had 3 1/2 feet of standing water in our house.”

“The worst part is that it smelled like a sewer; that’s the really disgusting part, and you know it’s going to be very difficult to get the smell out,” Andrea said. “We salvaged what we could and washed with vinegar and sponges and no water, so it was quite a challenge.”

Despite the hardships, the pair say they really want to stay in Sanibel.

“We could sell, I guess, and go someplace else, but we picked Sanibel because this is where we want to be, so if we can, with all the rules that are being placed, if we can possibly rebuild, I think we would,” Woodie said. “This is the place we want to be, so we’ll wait it out. Sanibel won’t be Sanibel for a number of years, but I think we made the decision we’d like to stay. We’re in for the long haul and not to pull out now, so we’re going to give it a go.”

Andrea and Woodie say the mutual support and help they’ve seen on the island over the last two weeks have been incredible, from the firefighters to the police to the mayor. They say they were sitting in their garage the other night when the Red Cross drove by and gave them a hot meal. It meant the world to them.