Relief, exhaustion and terror: Sanibel residents share stories of hurricane rescue

Dan Glaun Samantha Neely
Fort Myers News-Press

Yolande Welch — 95, feisty, with a bandaged leg and an injured shoulder — sat at the Port Sanibel marina with a Sanibel firefighter’s hand on her shoulder.

He asked her if she needed an ambulance. She demurred. Firefighters and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation officers had rescued her from Sanibel earlier in the day after a harrowing struggle against the storm, and she had plenty to say about it.

“It was hell,” Welch told The News-Press. “I’ve been through five hurricanes, and this is the worst one.”

Welch was one of the hundreds of Sanibel residents who took their chances with Hurricane Ian as it unleashed destruction on their home.

On Thursday evening, Sanibel officials said that 200 households reported staying on the island during the storm. Two people were confirmed dead, 14 medically evacuated and another 40 rescued without injury on Thursday.

Live coverage:Two confirmed deaths on Sanibel Island

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The aftermath:Fort Myers picks up after Ian's destruction

As Ian’s eye passed over the island on Wednesday afternoon, Welch heard a loud crash from her living room. One of her glass pane doors had snapped off its track, and was threatening to break entirely, she said.

“If you can believe this, I stood and held that door so it wouldn’t blow out. For four and half hours,” Welch said. “The wind was just ghastly, the strength of that wind.”

Welch hurt her shoulder with the effort, but stuck it out through the night. On Thursday, a firefighter drove up to her house in a two-seat buggy and drove her to a dock where a rescue boat waited.

“He was going hell bent for leather. He said does that bother you?” Welch said. “I said I used to drive one of those at my botanic garden, I even threw somebody off.”

An ill-fated family reunion

Fort Lauderdale local Christopher Gyles has vacationed to Captiva Island with his family since 1991.

Considered a “family tradition,” this year was just like any other, with 40 of his fellow family members packing one of their houses.  Until they got an uninvited, blustery guest on the radar.

“A lot of people hurried off to Fort Lauderdale,” Gyles said.

But Christopher and a few of his family decided to toughen it out on the island, thinking the storm wouldn’t actually hit them dead on. Deciding to grab some gear and supplies, Gyles said they felt prepared for Ian.

“We figured you know, we'll stay there for three or four days. When they open the bridge back up and clear the roads, we'll head out,” he said.

He quickly followed his remark by saying it was a bad idea.

The early hours of the hurricane weren’t too bad, he said, watching the winds come in quickly and rapidly change direction. 

It wasn’t until the storm surge that things started getting worse. He watched from the third floor condo as debris was sucked out into the gulf.

It wasn’t until 10 a.m. Thursday when they saw firemen walking down the street that they were rescued.

“A couple hours later, the Coast Guard came, brought a boat and then brought us to a certain spot where this gentleman picked us up in a pontoon boat,” Gyles said. “We stopped at a couple of different hotels, different places where people were stranded.”

Once at the pickup location, Gyles finally could contact his family to let them know they were alive and safe.

“They were freaking out,” he said. “We had no service, no nothing.”

'Like a freight train'

Eric and Vera Siefert, longtime Sanibel and Captiva residents in their sixties, sat at the Port Sanibel marina with their 15-year-old Cocker Spaniel Cody, who flopped down next to his owners as they waited for a friend to pick them up after their rescue.

The Sieferts said they realized deciding to ride out the storm was a dangerous error when the storm surge rose to about 10 feet in a matter of hours. Their house was on stilts, but water began flooding in at high tide, Eric told The News-Press.

“We were afraid,” he said. “We were crawling on top of furniture and we thought it was going to be the end.”

The winds were “devastating,” he said, ripping down four of the 70-foot coconut palms on their property. The storm was so loud he didn’t hear the trees fall.

“It was like a freight train. You could feel the house getting pounded,” Siefert said. “You could feel the vibration.”

Vera said they called 911 on Wednesday when the waters started rising, before the island lost cell service. They made it through the night, and the next day help arrived. 

Firefighters arrived in a truck with chainsaws and cut a path through felled trees to their door. They drove the couple to a waiting Fish and Wildlife rescue boat, Eric said.

“The fire department, bless ‘em, they showed up,” Vera said.