There was no time to waste. As Hurricane Ian lashed southwest Florida, Bryan Stern, a former Navy Seal, began mobilizing a crew, boats and tools — even crow bars — for the urgent task that would soon be at hand; rescuing hundreds of people possibly trapped by flood waters.
Project Dynamo has been scouring the coastline of southwest Florida rescuing people, many of them elderly residents who became cut off when the Category 4 storm washed away a bridge connecting Sanibel Island with the Florida mainland.
As local authorities continue reaching people trapped by floodwaters, others unwilling to be bystanders have sprung into action to aid official rescuers do their important work.
“It sort of restores your view of humanity. You see people chipping in and they aren’t getting paid for it. There’s even people whose whose homes are destroyed, but they’re helping them. They’re still helping other people,” said Tim Barrett, the training division chief for the Sanibel Fire Department.
The storm has killed dozens.
On Saturday afternoon while helping a team of pharmacists reach Sanibel Island to secure a drug store, Stern’s team encountered a woman they had met the day earlier.
Betty Reynolds had refused to leave her home for the storm, and turned down their offer to bring her to the mainland — but on Saturday, she came around.
“I didn’t think it was bad at all until the water started coming in. It came out about four feet in the house. So I’ve been living upstairs,” said Reynolds.
She had been living on Sanibel Island for 47 years when Ian hit, covering much of the island with a six foot storm surge.
Reynolds said she had evacuated for hurricanes in the past, and nothing came of it — so she decided to take a chance with this one.
After delivering Reynolds to shore, a text came in — another person on the island needed help.
A woman’s son texted saying that his mother was trapped on the island “and thinks she’s going to die.” He gave Stern and his team permission to knock down the store, if necessary, to get to her.
The resort community of Sanibel Island is ringed with palm tree-lined beaches and hotel resorts — but much of that appears to have been wiped out by Ian.
The only bridge that connects the island to the mainland was destroyed. Officials speculate it could be months before it’s repaired and opened to vehicle traffic for residents.
Having no roads in meant Stern had to arrive by boat — pulling up on a sandbar and jumping overboard was the best option.
In the end, the search for the woman came up empty — he later learned that she’d been rescued by another team beforehand. But Stern said the effort wasn’t wasted.
“Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It’s a blessing that people got off the island or got out some other way or friends or family or neighbor or whatever. The idea is is not have to rescue people. That’s the idea. I have no problem slogging through the mud.”