(MATLACHA, Fla.)– Roughly three dozen pastel-colored cottages line the only road to Pine Island, the largest island along Florida’s Gulf Coast where Hurricane Ian made landfall.
To get to Pine Island from mainland Florida, drivers must first go over a bridge and through Matlacha, an island community of about 600 people — many are commercial fishermen. Residents there live at the foot of another bridge to Pine Island that was devastated by Hurricane Ian last week and serves as the only connection to the mainland.
On Wednesday, before meeting with President Joe Biden, Gov. Ron DeSantis visited Matlacha to announce that roads there had been cleared and that the bridge had been temporarily repaired so that its residents could be connected to the mainland. The work took three days, his office later said.
But a quarter mile from where the governor spoke, Matlacha resident John Lynch watched another tide roll in and another piece of his home crumble into the gulf.
The sea wall, which used to keep the waters at bay, has now partially collapsed. If it’s not repaired, he said, his cottage will wash away with the tide.
“They’re focused on the roads and the bridge, rightfully so,” Lynch, 59, said on Wednesday as he pointed to the tide that had breached the sea wall and enveloped his home on Pine Island Road.
“People are losing their homes and their businesses” that can still be saved, added Lynch who also owns the Blue Dog Bar & Grill in Matlacha that was damaged by the storm. “I’m looking for that sense of urgency to stop it from getting any worse.”
Ian battered the southwest coast of Florida at speeds just shy of a Category 5 hurricane. At least 117 have died, making it the deadliest storm there since 1935.
Matlacha is in Lee County, an area that so far has the highest number of deaths of any county in the state. When Lynch returned after the storm he watched as emergency service workers pulled bodies off the streets. He also saw his neighbors homes were swamped — their foundations cracking away.
Most of the cottages were built in the 1940s or the 1950s. They boast sweeping views of the water and docks for skiffs.
“It’s a drinking town with a fishing problem,” joked John Hayes, who also lives in Matlacha and is known by locals as “Fishcutter John.”
On Wednesday, Hayes, who works for Lynch, helped his boss lug out debris from the restaurant.
Lynch described Matlacha as a blue-collar community without the high rises like those on the ravaged neighboring barrier islands of the popular vacation destinations Sanibel and Fort Meyers Beach. He said because it’s a small community, it’s not getting as much attention as larger tourist destinations.
“We don’t have that big voice,” he said.
At least a dozen of his neighbors’ homes on Pine Island Road are still standing, he said. But the tides that typically stop at the once sturdy sea wall are now eroding the soil from underneath the structures.
In his 25 years on the island, Lynch has watched the tides get progressively higher — but never as high as they have been since the hurricane struck.
As Ian barreled in on southwest Florida last Tuesday night, Lynch and his family evacuated to Cape Coral, a city on the mainland, where he had worked as a fireman for 20 years. As soon as the sun rose on Thursday, he hitched a ride on his neighbor’s boat back to Matlacha.
He said he barely recognized the place.
It “was like a foreign landscape. I couldn’t landmark things because the landmarks were gone,” he said.
When Lynch arrived at his dock, he saw that the cottage next door to his, which is owned by his 87-year-old uncle, Alan Lynch, had been reduced to a pile of rubble.
“That was going to be his home for the rest of his life. That was the plan,” John Lynch said.
Since the hurricane hit, residents have been busy trying to control the damage. Until Thursday they were still unable to leave Matlacha, so local skippers like “Mangrove Jimmy” — who used to give mangrove kayak tours — shepherded residents back and forth to what’s left of their homes.
Lynch donated a stock of frozen chicken breasts from his restaurant to guys down the block, who have been barbecuing it for islanders as they work.
When he arrives in Matlacha, Lynch removes debris from his lot and cleans the mildew that covers his drywall. At night, he boats supplies to a 72-year-old employee who is ill and did not want to leave her home on Pine Island.
On Thursday, when authorities opened the road from the mainland to Matlacha, Lynch saw an opportunity to do something more for his home. He called in a contractor the next day to help stabilize its foundation.
But without emergency repairs to the sea wall, Lynch worries that even when power returns, he won’t be able to bring his family home.
“We’re gonna be fine no matter what,” he said. “But it might not be in Matlacha.”
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