Hurricane Ian battered my home and neighbors, but it didn’t lay a finger on my love for Pine Island.

The day I started collecting my thoughts for this piece, I was waiting for an insurance adjuster to arrive and triage the wounds Hurricane Ian had inflicted a few weeks before. The Category 4 storm lingered lethally over coastal Lee County on Sept. 28, wiping out parts of Fort Myers Beach, scouring and swamping Sanibel, and battering Pine Island, the place I’ve called home for the last 25 years.

Miraculously, my 1987 wood-frame stilt house near the island’s center was mostly intact. Ian’s winds sheared shingles off the roof and sections of railing off my wraparound deck. Portions of vinyl siding and soffit were strewn across my yard and my neighbors’ yards. But the unshuttered, unboarded windows and sliding glass doors held fast, despite two knockout rounds of winds from Ian’s deadly advance. One framed picture fell off a bedroom wall.

I was lucky to still have a home. Lucky compared to those in hard-hit St. James City at the southern end of the island, where manufactured homes and concrete-block cottages nestle among new mansions. Lucky compared to residents and business owners in Matlacha, the little island east of us known for its pastel rainbow of funky bars and restaurants, art galleries and family-run seafood markets. Along the narrow swath of Pine Island Road connecting Matlacha to Cape Coral and Pine Island, many buildings had been swept away or had collapsed into Matlacha Pass. In many spots, wooden pilings were all that remained of homes built next to or over the water.

It wasn’t the first time a Cat 4 hurricane thrashed the place I love, and it may not be the last. Eighteen years earlier, Hurricane Charley, after a sudden turn east, hammered us on a similar path up Pine Island Sound.

We’re in the first zone for mandatory evacuations whenever hurricane cones veer toward the Southwest Florida coastline, and I fled inland to ride out Ian as I had with past hurricanes. After Charley and Ian, a few people—mainlanders—asked if I intended to keep living in such a vulnerable place. Actually, for decades people who live “in town,” in Fort Myers or Bonita Springs or other Lee County communities, have been asking me why I live where I live—even aside from the hurricane threat. It’s so remote, they say. They aren’t wrong. The day-tripping traffic in tourist season clogs the only route on and off the island. I spend two-plus hours a day commuting back and forth to work at Florida Gulf Coast University—and that’s on a good day.

Sure, there are downsides to island life, and the hardships wrought by 150-mile-an-hour sustained winds and historic storm surge can lead to reexamining one’s life choices—and sanity. But the things that lured me and kept me here for so long mostly remain.

Wind and flood insurance costs could eventually price me out of my little corner of paradise, but otherwise I’m rooted to this spot as much as the mangroves that fringe this island.

Pine Island represents Old Florida. Commercial fishing families have lived here for generations and still feed a grateful community. It’s common to see folks in the grocery store aisles wearing the fishermen’s white rubber boots—we call them “Pine Island Reboks.” When I stir shrimp and crab into my gumbo, I appreciate that they may have been harvested by somebody who lives down the street.

At our Winn-Dixie, the only supermarket on the island until 2022, there’s an unspoken “no shoes, no shirt, no problem” vibe. Pine Islanders value privacy and independence as much as the wild-and-wooly rural lifestyle and the freedom from homeowners’ association tyranny. There are no beaches or resorts here. No stop lights or chain restaurants. Most locals want to keep it that way. The sameness of commercial development that we see when we cross the Matlacha drawbridge and enter Cape Coral is not for us.

Artists and musicians, bikers and birdwatchers, boaters and farmers are drawn to this community. As I look around my home, I see reminders of people who helped me understand and appreciate Pine Island over the years. I see photographs of friends who introduced me to barrier islands reachable only by boat, like Upper Captiva, where I enjoyed many a weekend sleeping under the stars.

Radar shows Pine Island in the crosshairs as Ian approaches.
Radar shows Pine Island in the crosshairs as Ian approaches.

Most of all, I see the legacy of Mel Meo, an artist and friend who captured the soul of this island in her mullet-and-mango still lifes, her paintings of blooming poincianas and fishermen tossing cast nets. I collected as much of her work as I could and even took one of her painting classes. Back in the 1990s, she welcomed friends and newcomers to feast on stone crab claws at her Fish ’n’ Art gallery. She loved dressing up like Carmen Miranda on special occasions. We lost Mel to illness last summer, but a public mural was quickly painted in tribute to her signature style and community spirit.

That spirit, which finds expression in bad times as well as good, can’t be obliterated by a hurricane. Some years ago, local volunteers painted utility poles all over the island with images of eagles, herons, tortoises and other islandy icons. I wrote a story about “The Painted Poles of Pine Island” for the Fort Myers News-Press, where I was a reporter at the time. Ian’s winds knocked down or snapped many of those poles, but within days a grassroots campaign was underway to salvage the folksy works of art.

As the island fire control district explained in a Facebook post about the effort, “Part of rebuilding together is preserving our community’s history and pride.”

That history goes back much further than the history of most communities in Southwest Florida. The Calusa Indians occupied a part of Pine Island for more than 1,500 years, up until the 1700s. The enormous shell mounds they left behind at Pineland offer a breathtaking vista of Pine Island Sound. The Calusa Heritage Trail now leads visitors around the mounds and other features of an archaeological research center under the auspices of the Florida Museum of Natural History.

That trail is just one of several on the island where we go to clear our heads and enjoy the natural environment we moved here for. I don’t have to visit one of the county-maintained preserves, though, to get my fix of Florida flora and fauna. My small piece of land lies next to a 10-acre pine flatwoods, habitat for bald eagles, great horned owls, red-shouldered hawks, gopher tortoises and coyotes. Only one other house sits between me and the mangroves that line the west side of the island, beyond which stretches Pine Island Sound. At twilight during certain seasons, hundreds of ibis, herons, egrets and wood storks swoop over in waves so low I can hear their wings cut the air. Sometimes, a roseate spoonbill or two joins the feathered formation, as sunset calls wading birds into the mangroves to roost for the night.

Mangroves occupy a special place in the ecology of this beachless island. They shelter creatures with fins as well as feathers, providing protective nurseries for juvenile fish and shellfish. They buffer the coast from the effects of storm surge and erosion. Their root systems improve water quality by filtering out nitrates, phosphates and other pollutants. Mangrove forests also capture carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere. They are one of the great wonders of our watery world.

These are things I didn’t know when I became acquainted with Pine Island more than 30 years ago. A newspaper colleague discovered a two-bedroom waterfront condo in Matlacha for rent and suggested sharing. Thus began my education in island life. The pier behind our four-unit complex made a perfect spot for watching schools of mullet thread through the water and leap into the air for reasons no one has ever been able to explain. Sometimes dolphins cruised into our private cove, splashing their tail flukes to steer the fish into consumable clusters.

Drew Sterwald wood-frame home escaped serious damage.
Drew Sterwald wood-frame home escaped serious damage.

From our apartment in the heart of Matlacha, we could walk to the village’s salty bars and eateries like The Lob Lolly, which advertised “AUCE” (All U Can Eat) grouper. Locally caught fish like grouper, snapper and mullet were still relatively new to this Wisconsin native, who grew up on Friday night fish fries of lake perch. I soon learned how to crack stone crab claws without cutting my fingers and perfected my recipe for crab cakes using locally harvested blues.

Seafood isn’t the only edible commodity our community produces. A cornucopia of tropical fruit thrives here and attracts people from across the state who hunger for a taste of the exotic or of a touchstone that reminds them of their homeland. Lychees, dragon fruit, passion fruit, sapodilla and mamey sapote have become some of my favorites, but the myriad varieties of mangoes grown here have spoiled me forever for supermarket fruit. Valencia Pride, a floral-scented cultivar with mildly sweet flesh, was one of the first fruit trees I planted when I bought my house in 2000. My three mango trees produced bountiful harvests summer after summer, enough to share with friends and neighbors and to turn into sorbets, salsas, cobblers and daiquiris.

Mangoes are such an island obsession that they’ve inspired an annual July event called Mango Mania, presided over by a Mango Queen. Contests are conducted for the biggest fruit and the best mango recipes. The spicy mango gingerbread I concocted won a blue ribbon in 2021.

My mango trees and a dozen or so other mature pines, palms and maples took a beating from Ian. Some were uprooted, some broken. They likely protected the house from worse damage, as they did when Charley struck in 2004. With Florida sunshine and seasonal rains, the yard grew back into a barely managed jungle, and it will again. On the upside, I have a clearer view of sunsets now.
Losing the natural barrier of trees because of Ian has again stripped away some of the seclusion I’ve always treasured in my quiet neighborhood, built on a one-entry street and a large circle. Few people find us accidentally. We’re literally at the end of the line, as far west as you can drive on the island until you run out of road. The neighbors are a mixture of full timers and snowbirds. Some I’ve known for many years; others I don’t know at all. Somehow, most of us toe the line of watching out for others while minding our own business.

As someone who grew up in a town of less than 10,000—about the same as greater Pine Island—I feel comfortable here, connected to this place, like I’ve lived here in a past life. Growing up, I was a book nerd who spent hours at my hometown public library, and Pine Island’s is a short stroll away. My closest friends, the chosen family that plays an immeasurable part in keeping me here, live within walking distance, too. Their losses from Ian were greater than mine, yet they spent sweaty hours chainsawing tree trunks and dragging limbs to the roadside at my place.

About a month after Ian, my island family started planning our potluck Thanksgiving feast. Despite still coping with a historic and heartbreaking disaster, we were determined to keep alive our tradition of celebrating with friends, some who live here and some who annually return from places north. As we took our places at overloaded tables, we toasted each other and all the reasons that drew us to Pine Island and make us grateful to be part of this beloved community.

Drew Sterwald on the shores of Pine Island

Drew Sterwald is a writer and editor who lives in Bokeelia, one of several small communities on Pine Island in Lee County.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2023 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.