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Residents stay on island during Hurricane Irma

By Staff | Sep 27, 2017

The home Alison Ward stayed in during Hurricane Irma gave her a panoramic view of the storm. ALISON WARD

Although a mandatory evacuation was issued for the barrier islands, some residents decided to stay and ride out Hurricane Irma.

“I still feel very numb,” said Sanibel resident Alison Ward, who stayed on the island. “I think it was a surreal experience.”

Although she agreed with the city issuing a mandatory evacuation, she wanted to stay because she did not want to be forced off the island for a week or two.

“I’m glad I stayed. I wouldn’t be any safer than where I was. I would do it again if I had a safe place to be and (was with) people,” she said. “I couldn’t have made it without Rusty (Farst).”

As a resident of Community Housing and Resources, it was mandatory for her to leave her home and have a hurricane plan. She said her plan was to go to a friend’s house in Fort Myers that had not yet been boarded.

About 10 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 9, Chris and Nikolas Ventura attempting to get to their brother Marcel's house on Pine Tree Drive. NIKOLAS VENTURA

“I had to be out by noon on Friday and I understand why they did,” she said.

Ward said the Sanibel Police Department knew where she was because they did a head count of who remained on the island.

“I can’t say enough good things about that,” she said.

After she parked her car under Timbers, Ward headed to Farst’s home, and later to his next-door neighbor’s house that was on stilts 15 feet off the ground in West Rocks. The 2016 home, she explained was hurricane resilient. A total of five people stayed in the house with a dog.

“It was a widescreen TV with the storm,” she said of the four sliding glass doors in the rear of the house. “Wind gusts picked up water, and coconuts danced by. We saw a lot without leaving the house.”

Sunday morning on Captiva. NIKOLAS VENTURA

With the early predictions of more than 10 feet of storm surge, and the fear that the Causeway would no longer be there, let alone the island, staying was a decision these residents were willing to take.

“I decided to stay on island when my family and almost everyone else decided to leave. I remember Charley and the problems during the aftermath trying to get on island to make sure property was not damaged,” Nikolas Ventura, a Sanibel resident, said. “So, I wanted to be here to help any way I could in the aftermath this time.”

Ventura hunkered down with his brother Chris after securing their properties and making sure they had all the supplies they needed in the event of a major storm and storm surge.

He said they stocked up with 12 cases of water, two generators, one of which he rebuilt the carburetor for hours before the storm, two fridges full of food, six coolers of ice, 30 gallons of fuel, a pickup truck and a H2 Hummer. They also had two paddleboards, axes, ropes, life jackets, first-aid kits and batteries.

“My sister’s house is a newly built Wolter home with impact windows and it sits on pilings that give us about 12 feet of protection from surge,” Ventura said of where he stayed with his brother.

Clearing the roads on Captiva. NIKOLAS VENTURA

Ward said they were prepared with buckets of water to flush the toilets, plenty of food and drinking water, as well as a battery operated radio and life jackets.

“We had everything we needed but had no appetite for it,” she said.

The buckets of water came in handy, Ward said when Island Water turned off the water around noon on Saturday.

Saturday morning, Ventura said they double checked the island and their interests before hunkering down after they received more ice from the “fleeing sheriffs.”

The storm began raging by mid morning, Ventura said, with the brunt of it happening in the afternoon and evening.

“It was bad, but not so bad we were actually nervous,” he said. “We watched trees blow down all around the house and wind gusts that were over 100 mph. I don’t care what the official call for wind was, we got 100.”

Ward recalled having a minor meltdown Saturday night during the storm.

“I wanted to get away,” she said. “Rusty said I can’t go because the causeway is closed and you are safe here. He said there is no crying in baseball, gave me a hug and I was OK.”

They did not lose power until later that evening.

“At about 10, we felt it was safe enough to take a trip in the Hummer and check on our brother’s house and YOLO, along with the status of our friends who stayed up there,” Ventura said.

His brother, Marcel Ventura is the owner of YOLO Watersports.

“It was an adventure to say the least with downed lines, trees blocking the street, which we had to either axe out of the way, or pull out of the way in order to get there. We could not make it to my brother’s house because of a huge tree and the fact that the wind was still up so much we could hear the breaking limbs above us. We made it to Captiva, but on the way back we encountered a much larger tree had fallen and blocked the entire road. After about 30 minutes of axing and pulling, we managed to make a path around the tree and immediately headed home. The next morning I woke up and headed out at first light,” Ventura said. “I was doing live video on Twitter the entire time before, during and after the storm and had gotten quite the following since it began. That first light video had 16,000 views that day.”

From those videos, he began receiving requests from people who wanted to know what shape their property was in, so he did what he could to answer their questions.

“Luckily our homes did not sustain damage other than the trees,” Ventura said.

Ward also calmed her friends’ nerves, by checking on their homes, taking pictures and sending them the proof that things were OK.

“I’m glad I was able to help put other people’s minds at ease,” she said.

Once she made it back home to Casa Mariposa, Ward was relieved that there was no damage, other than the garden.

“The garden was trashed,” she said, adding that when she moved there four years ago she whipped the garden back into shape.

Ward had already begun working on the garden, pruning heavily and taking advantage of the new start, with some much-appreciated volunteers.

“The garden is a labor of love,” she said.

Although Ventura has ridden out storms before, he said never one of this magnitude.

“I’m kind of a weather nerd and have been called weatherman Nik by my friends, so being able to be here during the storm was awesome. Experiencing the weird little phenomenon that happen during extreme weather is something I enjoy a lot! Like, where pelicans hide, or the extreme tides and the desertion of the island of all people. A tropical ghost town. I would not recommend that anyone try to ride out a storm, but I’ve had training and we had the resources to deal with anything Irma could have tossed at us. We dodged a bullet and I’m thankful our little island was spared the worst,” he said.

Those who would like to view his Hurricane Irma footage can check out @SanibelNik on Twitter.

Ventura said he started the Twitter account after his friend urged him.

“‘If you’re gonna be stupid and stay there, you might as well document it,'” his friend said.

Venture said it was crazy to him that so many people wanted to see what was happening.

“I was contacted by ABC, NBC, BBC, Good Morning America, Ohio State University and the News-Press,” he said.

Ward said the one thing she took away from staying on the island during Hurricane Irma is “focusing on today.” She said when going through an experience like a hurricane, you have to live in the now.

“Life is good and that’s the take away,” Ward said. “We really dodged a bullet.”

After the hurricane passed, she said she was grateful for breathing and a cup of coffee, thanks to hooking up the coffee maker to the generator.

“It’s all the small stuff. A cup of coffee in the morning is a great thing,” Ward said.

Ventura moved to the island in 1997 after graduating from high school. He left the island for a while when he joined the Coast Guard in 2001 and spent four years in Northern California as a search and rescue communications specialist. He spent another four years as a reserve in Florida.

Ventura works at YOLO as a lead maintenance and repair tech. He also drives the parasail boat. He’s also been a licensed captain for 10 years.