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Hurricane Ian: A Personal Story from Pine Island

Mental Health
Author name: Lee Health


Dr. Karen Calkins is a Pine Islander, a homeowner in St. James City. During Hurricane Ian she stayed at a friend’s house because of its safer location while the storm churned ashore pushing 150-mph winds and 10 feet of storm surge.

The next day, after the worst of the hurricane had passed, Karen emerged with her fellow survivors into their reshaped world to check on their homes, holding their hearts in their hands.

The predicted storm surge between one and two stories high into the area had washed out the southern end of the island. Most everyone’s home was flooded, including Karen’s.

She will rebuild. Others would not be so fortunate, she knew.

“I felt so sad. I’ve never seen so many people crying and hungry and needing someone to hug them,” Karen says. “Some didn’t know what to do, where to go, it was difficult to see.”

Hurricane Ian’s emotional toll can’t be covered or healed with FEMA funds or monetary donations or aid programs, although all those help, of course.

“We ran into a bunch of people at The Monroe Canal Marina,” Karen recalls. “There were private boats that were helping people evacuate the island. I ran into one of the responders with the Pine island Fire Department and said I’d be happy to help.”

She’s uniquely qualified. Karen’s a board-certified emergency room physician with Lee Health Physician Group. 

Dr. Karen Calkins

Pine Island’s bridge to mainland Florida had collapsed in the storm, orphaning the island’s residents. Depending on season, the island’s population fluctuates between four and eight thousand.

“People were being encouraged to leave because the only road onto the island was impassable,” she says. “It was either by boat or air. The electricity and water were out. First responders from the fire department were rescuing people from their homes. There were people with COPD (congestive obstructive pulmonary disease) who were on oxygen and short of breath. They needed medical evacuation to an ambulance so they could get treatment.”

Karen worked from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. for days after at Matlacha-Pine Island Fire Department’s Station 1, where she tended to residents and helped them onto a bus, truck, or whatever rolled on four wheels for their transportation to an evacuation boat at the Yucatan Waterfront Bar and Grill. 

A procession of vessels would take shuttle passengers from the Yucutan to D & D Bait and Tackle, which still had a functioning boat ramp east of the washed-out road to Pine Island. From there, passengers would be taken by car to a shelter. Eventually, Army Chinook helicopters, courtesy of the National Guard, would do most of the heavy lifting, moving as many as 14 people at a time to safety.

“It was phenomenal,” she says, describing the community spirit. “Seeing people lend their vehicles to complete strangers so they could take folks to evacuation sites or bring water and other critical supplies to people stranded around the island.”

Her appreciation especially runs deep for the first responders of the Matlacha-Pine Island Fire Department. “They were the first ones on site, immediately after the hurricane. They provided medical assistance and waded through peoples’ homes to rescue them. I know many of them didn’t sleep for days. 

“Thanks to everyone, frontline workers, emergency management personnel, National Guard, police officers, search and rescue, and all the volunteers.” Karen’s voice softens. “I’m still feeling gratitude. I’m incredibly impressed at how people were after those first 24 hours of despair.”

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