GA Pilots Continue Maria Relief Efforts in Puerto Rico, Caribbean

As flight activity increases, everyone from the military to Major League Baseball players are pitching in to pack planes.

437th air wing
The 437th Airlift Wing flew a C-17 packed with 129,000 pounds of ready-to-eat meals from Charleston to Puerto Rico.437th Air Wing/Facebook

Over the weekend, the air traffic flow at San Juan's Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport returned to normal thanks to the partnership between the FAA and Puerto Rico Air National Guard. In the days following Maria's devastating impact on the island, the lack of access to airports and airfields made it near-impossible for people to get on and off, resulting in massive crowds forming at the Caribbean's busiest airport. As one reporter put it, SJU was home to a humanitarian crisis.

As the flights into and out of SJU gradually increased into the low 40s per hour, which PRANG explained is "normal operations," more and more people have been able to escape the island for the U.S., and especially Florida, which is expected to be significantly impacted. At the same time, though, more aircraft have been able to fly into the island, as other airfields have also reopened, allowing everyone from military officials to GA pilots to contribute to the relief effort.

Operation Airdrop, which was created by some Texas pilots in response to Harvey's impact on southeast Texas, teamed up with former Major League Baseball star Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez and the Major League Baseball Players Trust, as well as the Office of the Governor of Puerto Rico, to raise $1 million for continuing the purchase and transport of supplies to people in need. The Players Trust already previously donated $1 million for recovery efforts in the Caribbean, Mexico and the U.S.

“Seeing my home country suffer this much, truly breaks my heart,” Rodriguez said. “We are doing our best to help my people in Puerto Rico. It is an honor and I am proud to represent players through the Player's Trust as an ambassador. It feels good to know that more help is on the way.”

Last week, the first shipment of food, water and supplies left Tampa for Isla Grande in San Juan, where they were immediately sorted and distributed. OAD's leaders have been surveying the damage this week, along with baseball player Jose Cruz, Jr., who took them to his hometown of Arroyo to witness the distribution system.

San Juan update: Things are coming together here! Our team met with Beatriz Rosello, the First Lady of Puerto Rico,...

Posted by Operation Airdrop on Sunday, October 1, 2017

The volunteer disaster response organization Aerobridge is also flying relief missions to Puerto Rico and other affected islands. One pilot recently flew a compassion flight to the U.S. Virgin Islands, where thousands of people are still without power, food and water. The plane carried supplies and volunteers to St. Thomas and returned to Florida with four people who desperately needed to be evacuated.

On Friday, the Texas-based aviation non-profit Seaplane Crossings completed a relief flight to St. Thomas, as they loaded Pegasus, a 1955 Grumman Albatross, with 5,000 pounds of supplies. Additionally, they shared photos from the airport in St. Thomas, where some planes have been damaged beyond repair.

The Eagles Wings Foundation has been working with FEMA and others to provide tarps and trucks to relief efforts following both Irma and Maria. Last week, the EWF website teased an extraction mission to "evacuate several elderly homebound survivors of Hurricane Maria." According to the Palm Beach Post, EWF's Scott Lewis learned of 80-year-old Madelaine Hennessey's situation, as she is battling carcinoid cancer and begged her daughter in New Jersey to get her out of San Juan.

With funding from a Palm Beach County law firm, Lewis organized two supply flights into Puerto Rico, and then helped extract Hennessey and others. “I see the potential for the nursing-home deaths that happened during Irma to exponentially happen in Puerto Rico,” Lewis told the newspaper. “There are extremely urgent unmet needs.”

Since the FAA announced that limited commercial air service was restored at SJU, airlines have also been doing their part to deliver supplies and evacuate people who have been stranded at the airport for days and even more than a week. Between the people and goods, space is obviously limited on the aircraft, and so with that in mind American Airlines created Operation Puerto Rico Strong to allow employees with families or homes in Puerto Rico to send boxes of supplies or even generators. Additionally, the airline is offering $99 flights to San Juan.

The new organization Vieques Love was established specifically as a long-term response for recovery funding on the island, but that mission was changed by Maria. The group has already raised more than $680,000 toward its goal of $1 million for purchasing and sending supplies to the people of Vieques. Last week, in a joint effort with the AFYA Foundation, Vieques Love was able to load a private jet with 1,000 pounds of medical supplies that helped the organization create a "free, fully stocked pharmacy at the Vieques hospital (for the first time since the 1980s) and had helped keep the hospital operational."

Volunteers with the Christian humanitarian aid organization Samaritan's Purse loaded the group's DC-8 aircraft with supplies for their first major distribution in Puerto Rico last Friday. This follows their relief efforts in the Caribbean in the wake of Irma, as they delivered everything from blankets to water purification units.

437th Airlift Wing C-17 loading 129,000lbs of Meals Ready to Eat at Kelly Field, Texas, to deliver quick-response...

Posted by 437th Airlift Wing on Saturday, September 30, 2017

Also on Friday, the 3rd Airlift Squadron under the 436th Airlift Wing flew a Dover C-17 Globemaster III with more than 100,000 pounds of food and water from Kelly Field in Texas to Puerto Rico. A day later, the 437th Airlift Wing (above) flew a C-17 packed with 129,000 pounds of ready-to-eat meals from Charleston to Puerto Rico.

In all, U.S Northern Command had 11 flights scheduled on Sunday to send more than 310,000 meals and 150,000 liters of water to Puerto Rico, in addition to generators and other supplies needed to support FEMA. That followed nine flights by the Department of Defense, which sent food, water and a mobile ATC tower, among other necessities.