Saturday, September 16, 2017

Volunteer pilots form bridge to Irma’s victims on the Keys



LAKELAND — Dr. Charles Llano, a Lakeland dentist, owns a second home on Summerland Key, one of the islands hit hardest by Hurricane Irma’s assault on the archipelago south of Miami.

Llano’s getaway survived the monster storm fairly intact, so he’s spending much of his time assisting his island neighbors in need.

A private pilot with a Piper Lance PA-32 single-engine aircraft, Llano is part of a large, all-volunteer effort to airlift food, water and other supplies into Summerland Key. Their efforts dovetail with government and military operations.

Working from Lakeland’s Sun ’n Fun complex adjacent to Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, this band of volunteer pilots, amateurs and professionals alike, are united by the desire to help storm victims in the Keys, where disaster relief operations are barely underway, they said.

“One of my neighbors lost his house completely,” said Llano, who attended an early morning briefing Friday at Sun ’n Fun orchestrated by the nonprofit AERObridge. “It’s so devastating ... you just feel you can’t do enough (to help).”

Llano was joined Friday by pilots from across the country and throughout Florida, including Michael Hare, 63, a commercial pilot from Gainesville, co-owner of a Cessna Cardinal, a light, single-engine aircraft.

With the assistance of a volunteer ground crew, he loaded the small plane with boxes of ready-to-eat meals and cases of water.

“I had the day off so now I’m off to Homestead (Executive Jet Center),” Hare said. “My plan is to come back here and see how the loads (of donated goods and supplies) are coming. The whole idea is to be flexible.”

Hare’s solo flight to the southern tip of peninsular Florida will take approximately 90 minutes. Once in Homestead, volunteers will off-load the supplies and load them into one of several larger planes commissioned by AERObridge for delivery to a small, private airstrip on Summerland Key.

AERObridge is operating a second staging area at an Ocala airport, where volunteer pilots are picking up more food and supplies for delivery to the Homestead airport. The supplies, including charcoal, gasoline and personal hygiene items, are being collected through a network of suppliers that work with groups like AERObridge in times of crisis.

Individual donations are being accepted through Monday. Items needed most include non-perishable food, pet food and water. Deliveries may be dropped off from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Sun ’n Fun Expo Campus Aerospace Pavilion, 4175 Medulla Road.

All delivery vehicles should place a sign on the dashboard that reads: “Drop-Off.”

“We’re ferrying in as much food and water as possible,” said Marianne Stevenson, president of AERObridge, an independent disaster relief organization that also is coordinating relief flights into St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which was strafed by Irma’s winds.

AERObridge flights out of Lakeland began earlier this week and are expected to continue into next week.

The group’s mission is authorized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has limited the mercy flights to Summerland Key, where first-responders and other volunteers are assisting in warehousing and distributing supplies, said Michael Burwell, who is overseeing AERObridge’s Lakeland operation.

AERObridge pilots have assisted in other ways, such as the emergency delivery of an elderly Key West resident to a Fort Lauderdale hospital, and transporting a Keys woman left homeless by the storm to Lakeland, where she was picked up by relatives.

By order of FEMA, AERObridge pilots are forbidden from bringing members of the media into the Keys, Burwell said. Pilots spotting damage from the air are saying that the devastation is widespread, he said.

“It’s heart-wrenching what’s been going on down there,” said Burwell, a resident of greater Minneapolis. “It’s devastating from what I’ve heard.”

John Parrish, 51, left his job with a commercial cleaning business in Columbia, S.C., Thursday morning to pick up a load of supplies in Ocala and fly them to Homestead in his Beechcraft Bonanza. He returned to Lakeland and was ready Friday morning to take to the air with another load.

“It’s a six-seater and I took three out so we could fit a bunch of stuff,” he said. “We just wanted to come help.”

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