Business aviation brings help and comfort to Katrina victims

 - October 19, 2006, 6:32 AM

When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, the business aviation community swung into action to help those affected by the natural disaster. Not long after the hurricane made landfall on the morning of August 29, many aircraft operators called the Red Cross and offered to airlift in supplies or do humanitarian transports. Their offers were rebuffed; instead, the relief agency simply asked for donations.

Wanting to go beyond merely donating money, this close-knit community was determined to use its resources–aircraft or otherwise–to help those affected by the hurricane. Central to this effort was NBAA’s Air Mail list server, which became an important communications tool for facilitating airlift efforts.

The first messages offering help came on September 1, with several people opening their homes to evacuees. Within hours members began asking how they could use their business aircraft to fly in supplies or evacuate refugees from the hardest-hit areas in Louisiana and Mississippi.

After several postings offering aircraft assets went without a response from anyone at NBAA, people started to plead with the association to take action. “Seems to me this is a stellar opportunity for NBAA to make the point that having a large, healthy and viable corporate aviation community can be an important asset for our nation. But to do that NBAA needs to coordinate with relief agencies ASAP,” noted one posting.

Also on September 1, one Texas-based business aircraft operator, unhappy with NBAA’s apparent focus on relocating its convention rather than immediate effort to coordinate airlift relief efforts for members, urged the association to consider “higher priorities.”

“What we do want to see…[is] NBAA take a leadership position among our membership to mobilize and encourage support, in whatever way possible, for the people of the Gulf Coast and the dedicated personnel who have gone down there to help. Make us proud, be part of the solution…this is an unbelievable opportunity for the NBAA and its membership to show what we are made of.”

Membership Takes Action
NBAA v-p of communications Dan Hubbard told AIN that behind the scenes top association officials were working in the “immediate aftermath of the storm” to coordinate members’ assets with government and relief agencies.

Meanwhile, individual NBAA members stepped up to the plate. Perhaps the most visible was Carrie Walegir of Lionheart Aviation, who asked business aircraft operators to help deliver supplies to devastated areas in Baton Rouge, La., and transport evacuees to the Dream Center, a nonprofit shelter in Los Angeles that set up 300 beds for Katrina victims after the storm.

Avjet’s Noel Fournier spent the two weeks following Hurricane Katrina coordinating relief flights with businesses, government officials, churches, charitable organizations, medical professionals and others. Robin Eissler of JetQuest worked at connecting available aircraft with people who needed to be airlifted from New Orleans-area hospitals. Her work also involved making hundreds of telephone calls to help transport people in the Gulf Coast region to grassroots relief providers in dozens of U.S. cities.

As a result of their hard work and that of countless others, business aircraft evacuated more than 600 people from devastated areas to safe locations. According to NBAA, at press time member companies involved in Katrina relief efforts had transported approximately 130,000 pounds of supplies, including water, food and medical provisions, to the Gulf Coast.

Volunteer Coordination

On September 8, NBAA started a separate Air Mail list to help operators better coordinate Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. By that time business aviation relief efforts had peaked and were slowing down, shifting from flying in aid and rescuing refugees to reuniting a handful of families that had been separated during the mass evacuation. That’s not to say that business aviation still isn’t helping those affected by Hurricane Katrina–at press time lists of missions to transport evacuees to live with family members in other parts of the country were still being transmitted on Air Mail.

NBAA explained that some relief organizations chose not to use aircraft and other assets donated by NBAA members in support of relief missions because the degree of liability for using those assets was unclear. To address issues such as this, the House of Representatives last month passed a bill (H.R.3736) that would shield volunteers who provide aid, medical treatment and rescue assistance to Hurricane Katrina victims from liability arising from injury and property damage. A companion Senate bill is pending.