The scene is brutal: Miles of devastated houses, beaches, and businesses on the main island of Abaco in the Bahamas. Waves lash over the flooded runway at Marsh Harbour airport, clearly closing off the normal means by which people travel here from across the ocean. No ferries, even. Hurricane Dorian churned its way through these islands just a couple of days ago, taking its own awful time.
Pilots who have flown here for vacations and relaxation, for business and pleasure—all watch now in frustration as they wait for a way to help, feeling viscerally the pain of the people stranded on the islands they love without power, fuel, or electricity. A handful have flown over to witness the destruction and contemplate how they can return with supplies, or evacuate more people who need the lift. Flying spoke with one Miami-based pilot who has visited the area countless times in his Cessna 210, and he described the gut-wrenching emotions he felt—and the helplessness he hopes will turn soon into action.
Various aviation rescue and relief organizations stand ready to mobilize. We spoke earlier this week with Allison Hoyt, communications director for Operation Airdrop, based in Texas. “[The logistics] change with every hurricane,” said Hoyt, in terms of from where the relief effort is staged, and how many aircraft and pilots are needed. The organization seeks aircraft owners willing to fly their airplanes from a given geographical area, but those without airplanes can help out too. “Those [who don’t have aircraft] but are pilots can help out well on the ground,” said Hoyt. Pilots are assigned tasks such as loading and servicing, because their skills (knowing how to run a weight-and-balance calculation) and awareness (staying out of prop arcs) come in handy.
Operation Airdrop stages from a single airport, typically, to help it keep tabs on all aspects of the effort and maximize its small budget. Because of the scale of the projected Bahamas effort, as of Wednesday, September 4, the organization has requested that only pilots with high performance singles or twins, or turbine aircraft register for this specific mission. Extensive Bahamas flight experience is also required. In fact, for this effort, Operation Airdrop projects that much of the relief will come by water, given that the islands lay only four to five hours away by boat.
Other rescue/relief organizations, such as AeroBridge and Mercy Flight Southeast, coordinate similar missions too. All seek donations and volunteers year-round; more information can be found on their respective websites.
One thing that will be critical to the success of the relief effort for the Bahamas, however, was still not solidified at press time: how to coordinate all of the separate but related efforts through bureaucratic processes—chiefly customs and immigration, given the clear fact the Bahamas are not part of the United States. On the Bahamas Customs Department site, only a registration form for EMTs (emergency medical technicians) was active as of Wednesday. With only certain airports in south Florida housing customs on site, coordination with U.S. Customs upon return will be required—just one of many logistical hurdles that any relief effort must surmount before real assistance can be delivered.
For now, with most of the infrastructure damaged—or simply disappeared—the focus remains on evacuation and medical attention. A long road to rebuilding lies ahead.