Alyssa Miller

Boots on the ground

August 30, 2011 by Alyssa Miller, AOPA Online Managing Editor

Jon Short and Cowboy

Jon Short (far right) and Cowboy to his immediate left prepare to head out with the team.

After an early departure from Cullman, Ala., at 1:45 a.m. Central time Aug. 30, Jon Short, Cowboy (Brian Ferguson), and his crew rolled into Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport around 7 a.m. to be part of the Bahamas Habitat fly-out to different islands in the Bahamas. Cowboy and two volunteers will be working on Cat Island for a week, and Short is ferrying supplies in his Aztec. He flew several missions on Tuesday before clearing U.S. Customs about 7 p.m. in Fort Lauderdale. But that still wasn’t the end of his day, which was already pushing 16 hours. He had to get reloaded with supplies for Wednesday. (His mission isn’t scheduled for 1:45 a.m., so maybe he’ll catch a few extra winks.)

By mid-morning Tuesday, Cowboy and his two volunteers had already assessed many of the needs on Cat Island. We met up with them after clearing Bahamian customs on Great Exuma Island, which seemed to weather the storm with mainly damage to trees.

Damage on Cat Island.

Cat Island, and particularly the Orange Creek area of the island, was hit hard. Much of the fencing in front of the FBO at Arthur’s Town Airport on the island was leveled. But that was minor. In some places, asphalt was washed off the roads like sheets of tar paper. Trees were twisted, and power lines were in the streets. Hurricane Irene’s storm surge washed through the back of one woman’s house, pushing her refrigerator out the front and across the street. Everything two feet and lower was ruined. She plans to move her furniture outside to let it dry. Cowboy said one of his team’s goals will be to help disinfect her house to prevent mold.

Annie Burrows, a janitor at the FBO at Arthur’s Town Airport, has been cleaning the airport facility and helping move relief supplies that are being flown in by Bahamas Habitat. She’s putting her needs last. Her house is still standing, but she lost everything. “I lay on the floor and keep the door open,” she says of living at home now. The water ruined her mattress and the lack of electricity makes being inside without a fan unbearable. Residents in Orange Creek should get power later this week or early next week, one local estimates.

Unloading supplies on Cat Island.

After unloading half of the supplies from a Baron and Aztec at Cat Island (and stacking them in a truck and van, unloading the van where supplies will be sorted, and then reloading the van from another aircraft that had flown in), we wish Cowboy and his crew luck with the big task ahead and head to our next destination. We survey Long Island from the air and then fly to Governors Harbour on Eleuthera Island where Bahamas Habitat has a base camp.

A Piper PA-23-250 at Governors Harbour International Airport was ripped to shreds. The tiedown, chalks, and three 100-lb sandbags that were meant to hold it in place were still in their places. The aircraft, however, had flipped over the airport’s perimeter fence, both engines torn from the aircraft, and the fuselage cut in half behind the baggage door.

Twin destroyed by Irene at Governors Harbour.

We should have known that would foretell the destruction we would soon see.

Bahamas Methodist Habitat Executive Director Abraham McIntyre and Rev. Kenya Lovell, minister for the Central Eleutheran Region of the Bahamas Conference of the Methodist Church, brought us to Cupid’s Cay near the airport while they continued to survey damage, assess needs, and hand out tarps. Trees, mattresses, and appliances were piled in between houses along the one-lane roads. A family worked to erect one side of a room that had collapsed. Another man sat on a downed telephone pole, his head down as he rested his elbows on his knees. But he paused for only a moment before getting back to work.

That’s how resilient all of the Bahamians have seemed on this trip.

Diana Demeritte

Even Diana Demeritte, whose husband of seven years died in March and whose house was almost completely destroyed by Irene, is picking up and moving forward. She’s cleaning out her house, surviving with a makeshift plywood roof and a tarp, two gallons of clean water, and some nonperishable food. Amid the cleanup and heartbreak, she takes some time for herself—coloring her hair.

John Gaitor’s house was farther inland than Demeritte’s, but the shingles on his roof lifted, allowing the hurricane’s rains to flood several rooms. Sometimes he needs a little motivation to continue the cleanup effort after a long day at work with Bahamas customs. Without any electricity, he gets a little creative. One evening, he turned on his car radio. Music streaming from the car put him and his neighbors in cleanup mode. “It keeps that community spirit,” Gaitor says of joking with friends and playing music.

The Bahamians are taking Hurricane Irene’s destructive path in stride, but they still need help—especially those in underserved areas far from the resort towns. Many of the docks on the islands were damaged, making it difficult for ships to deliver supplies. General aviation has played a key role in getting food, drinking water, and tarps to the Bahamians quickly. And with the long days of logistics calculations and flight time, these pilots and volunteers seem as resilient as those they are serving. In just a few hours, they’ll be at it again. Nine flight activities are scheduled to various islands on Wednesday, as half a dozen pilots or more are volunteering to help. Another 1,000 pounds of supplies will be dropped off at Fort Lauderdale Executive to be delivered. Short will be flying around the islands delivering food and water, and Cowboy is scheduled to get some much-needed roofing supplies on Cat Island.

7 Responses to “Boots on the ground”

  1. Capt. Pat Joffrion Says:

    Alyssa,

    Please send me your e-mail address so that I can forward my story to you. On MONDAY, My wife & I made our flights from FXE to Governors Harbour, then to Nassau to pick up another load for Cat Island. We had to fly home on Tuesday due to a business associated being hospitalized with heart problems. Sorry we didn’t get to meet, but we were one of the first flights to the islands.

    Pat Joffrion
    26159 Marina Road
    Orange Beach, AL 36561
    (985) 665-7145
    AOPA # 06958213

  2. Larry Johnson Says:

    I’ve spent quite a while on Grand Bahama and Abaco and have spent time with many families still trying to recover from Hurrican Wilma. The common comment is ;”Wilma, she was a very bad lady.” Unfortunately, hurricanes have always been and will continue to be a legacy of the Bahamas. Nevertheless, I just wish I could be working right now to be helping with relief efforts on the islands recently hit. Unfortunately, my own medical problems will prevent me from being part of the relief effort. My thanks and thoughts are with those who are working to help at this time. AOPA #06693524

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  6. Ted Leger Says:

    I hate that the Bahamas gets hit so much with the hurricanes. Some people forget that the majority of the people that are there aren’t tourist. They are communities of people. It is so hard when that keeps happening to them!

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