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Stay or go? Hard choice for Florida islanders devasted by Ian

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A man sits on a broken section of the Pine Island Road in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Matlacha, Florida on October 1, 2022./AFP
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Oct 03, 2022 - 07:17 AM

MATLACHA, UNITED STATES — Karen Pagliaro walks down Matlacha’s main street, dodging downed trees, debris and abandoned vehicles, unsure where to go in the small island town cut off after Hurricane Ian damaged bridges linking it to mainland Florida.

“We feel kind of forgotten,” says the 50-year-old teacher, who lost her home to the storm. “We thought they’d send in help, water and supplies and things, and we were told no, just get off.”

Until Wednesday, Matlacha was a small paradise in southwest Florida.

The fishing village of 800 people across two islets was dotted with colorful wooden houses built around the wide street. It was a place to enjoy the sea, good weather, seafood restaurants and small art galleries.

The hurricane changed everything.

Three days after Ian hit, the Coast Guard, firefighters and citizens from nearby towns are still coming by boat to rescue the last residents who were trapped there after refusing to evacuate.

Other residents, those who did leave the island, are making the journey in the opposite direction from the mainland to check on the damage to their homes.

Christian Lopez watches the jetty as the emergency services evacuate people — but he has no intention of leaving, despite losing his home.

“I’d rather stay here than go somewhere else and be on the street. Here at least we have a little roof and we are going to try to fix up the trailer where we live,” says the 25-year-old.

‘I never want to come back’ 

At the other end of Matlacha, the main street is cut off by a huge crevasse that people have to cross thanks to a makeshift bridge made of a metal board.

Dozens of stunned and weary people walk somberly about, taking in the devastation. Most of them share the same uncertainty of not knowing what to do or where to go.

“I don’t have a plan,” says John Lynch, sounding resigned. The 59-year-old’s house is sinking into the sea and he is preparing to leave.

“We’ve been here for 25 years… It’s heartbreaking because this is where we plan on living for the rest of our lives.”

Karen Pagliaro doesn’t know what she is going to do either. She has nowhere to go. The school where she works is temporarily closed because of hurricane damage.

What is clear to her is that she wants to return to live in Matlacha.  “It’s our beloved city and we love it here,” she says.

Near the pier, Jim Bedra doesn’t share that sentiment. The septuagenarian is about to leave town with his wife, Kathy, and their dog, Luna, on a Coast Guard boat.

Last week he wanted to evacuate the island with Kathy and their 31-year-old son, but the two convinced him to stay where they had lived since 2013.

He no longer has a home and his voice cracks at the thought. “We are going to stay in a shelter, I imagine,” says Bedra, who wants to return to his safely landlocked home state of Ohio.

“I never want to come back here,” he says before boarding the boat for the mainland.

“This is not the retirement we looked for.”

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