By boat and jet ski, volunteers assist in Ian’s rescue efforts

SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla. (AP) — There was no time to waste. As Hurricane Ian battered Southwest FloridaBryan Stern, a US Army veteran, and others began assembling crews, boats and even oars for the urgent mission that would soon be at hand: rescuing hundreds of people who might be trapped by floodwaters.

“As soon as the sun came out, we started rolling,” said Stern, who last year assembled a search and rescue team called Project Dynamo that has undertaken operations in Afghanistan, Ukraine and, now, Florida.

Project Dynamo has rescued more than 20 people, many of them elderly residents who were cut off when the Category 4 storm swept away a bridge connecting mainland Florida to Sanibel Island, a crescent of seashells popular with tourists. housing approximately 7,000 inhabitants.

On a beach, carved into the sand, there were calls for immediate help: “Help”, “SOS”.

As local authorities continue to reach out to people stranded on barrier islands or trapped by floodwaters, other reluctant bystanders have sprung into action, sometimes risking their own safety or putting aside their own loss and suffering to help official rescue operations. It’s not a new phenomenon: the base’s rescue teams have responded to previous disasters, including after Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana last year.

Although some officials frown on people carrying out their own rescue operations – especially at first if they are not yet safe enough or if the rescuers lack training – others welcome any help.

“It sort of restores your view of humanity. You see people fighting and they don’t get paid for it,” said Tim Barrett, chief of training for the Sanibel Fire Department. “There are even people whose houses have been destroyed, but they are helping them. They’re still helping other people.”

It can be dangerous work. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed by the powerful storm, which lashed some areas with winds of 155 mph (249 km/h) or more and pounded the coast with ocean waves.

“We are still working to rescue people. I mean, it’s horrible that people have lost their lives. It’s horrible that people are still possibly trapped in the rubble,” Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“But I’ve talked to the sheriffs and the first responders and they’re trying to get to these people as quickly as they can.” he said. “They’ve been working to evacuate the people who stayed there, places like Sanibel Island and Pine Island and Fort Myers Beach.”

The storm has killed dozens of people in Florida, and more bodies may be recovered.

Matt Mengel and his friends said they’ve made seven rescues so far, most of them elderly Sanibel Islanders they reached on jet skis.

“We had gas. We had jet skis. We had water. We had food and snacks. And our mission was just to go find them, dead or alive,” he said.

He described the destruction of the area, where he has lived for seven years, as heartbreaking. “It was sad to see our home destroyed and our favorite spots destroyed.”

The team’s rescue missions began Friday when they hadn’t heard from a friend who lives and works on Sanibel Island. That friend was found safe and sound, but they quickly found others who needed help.

As they were leaving, Mengel’s girlfriend heard a woman screaming for help. They responded and found a couple who were desperate to get off the island.

A Coast Guard helicopter was patrolling nearby, and Mengele—with the help of the Project Dynamo crew—began frantically waving for attention. The helicopter spotted him and dropped on the beach to evacuate the couple.

“All I wanted to do was help,” Mengele said.

A local TV station told the story of how three siblings — Leah, Evan and Jayden Wickert — helped save about 30 people from flooding in a Naples neighborhood.

The water had deepened to about 6 feet (nearly 2 meters) in their neighborhood, and people were standing with whatever they could to keep their necks above the water. The brothers used kayaks and boats to rescue people.

“There were a lot of people standing on their couches and coming out of the water,” Leah Wickert told WBBH-TV.

Betty Reynolds, 73, expressed her appreciation for the men who came to her rescue after spending days in her damaged home on Sanibel Island.

“You hate to leave a house you’ve lived in for 47 years,” he said, but said it’s filled with “lots and lots of mud.”

She said she didn’t evacuate before the storm because she and her home have survived previous storms unscathed. But she said it took her by surprise: “I just didn’t think there would be this big of a storm.”

Reynolds was taken off the island on Saturday while Stern and the Project Dynamo team were on another mission, having received a message from a man worried about his mother.

Stern, whose cohorts are also military veterans, is fast-talking and full of bravado. On a recent trip to Sanibel Island, he landed a boat directly on the beach, jumped into the water as he hit the sand, and ran ashore.

“It’s like D-Day,” he said afterward.

When there was no answer at the home of the woman whose son had texted, his team used a crowbar to gain entry, with the son’s permission.

Stern said he couldn’t take it. His rescue plan stemmed from his frustration at watching Americans and their allies struggle to leave Afghanistan last year.

He has since turned his attention to helping people flee the war in Ukraine, where Stern and his team plan to return soon after what he called a short “vacation” in Florida.


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