One volunteer’s account of bizav relief efforts

 - October 19, 2006, 10:19 AM

In the days following Hurricane Katrina, I watched the news and felt helpless. There were so many people in need and no “quick” way to respond. After seeing a segment about babies being airlifted out of hospitals and being separated from their parents, I jumped into action. I was certain that Jet Quest, the company I work for, could find these parents and get them to their children by flying them in our airplane.

After numerous calls to news stations and hospitals, I finally found a woman at a central command center at Houston Children’s Hospital who understood the value of what we were offering and said she would find a mission for us. I posted an e-mail on NBAA’s Air Mail forum to see if anyone else wanted to help. By noon the next morning, I had more than a dozen responses from individuals and corporations willing to donate their aircraft to do whatever was necessary.

Two days went by and no one called. As we watched the news each night, it was clear that things were getting more and more dire in New Orleans, that towns in Mississippi had not been reached yet and families were being separated. I made more phone calls, this time to the Red Cross, both local and national, to other hospitals and to the air ambulance company coordinating the relief effort. Still no takers. It was like having all the pieces to play chess, but no board to play on.

That evening, I received ane-mail from Carrie Walegir at Lionheart Aviation. Through her church and the Convoy of Hope, a faith-based relief organization, she had been able to get in contact with some people on the ground in Baton Rouge. At the same time, David Peres, a wealthy businessman from California, had contacted Avjet and was setting up a large-scale mercy mission. Walegir, Noel Fournier at Avjet, Doug Schultz (chief pilot for Applera), his wife, Marianne Stevensen, and I started comparing lists, making contacts and developing a plan.

Schultz, in his company’s Challenger, flew the first mission into Baton Rouge with supplies and picked up evacuees and flew them to the Dream Center in Los Angeles, which provided housing, job placement and counseling. In one week, 240 spots at the Dream Center were filled by evacuees flown in on corporate aircraft.

Reuniting Families

As word spread in Baton Rouge about these “private jets” moving goods in and people out, we started receiving calls from many sources. Several churches that were sheltering evacuees called to let us know they were short on food. One church in Hammond, La., called and said they were completely out of food and asked if we could help. Within an hour, Paul Kite at Kite Companies was in the air in his King Air, flying to Mankato, Minn., to pick up 7,700 MREs and moving them to Hammond. Connecticut-based Tradewind Aviation staged its Pilatus and Caravan in the area and flew three to four flights a day moving food, water, diapers and other supplies.

The number of missions grew each day as we shifted from flying in supplies to flying in doctors, chaplains and other relief personnel. We also started to get missions to reunite families. Angel Flight of America contacted us because although they have thousands of aircraft and pilots in their organization, they did not have the resources for the long-haul trips.

By September 11, we were coordinating anywhere from 15 to 30 trips a day for a variety of organizations and we were even working with some local Red Cross volunteers who had heard about our effort and were trying to move people out of shelters. At that point, we could have used a dispatch system similar to NetJets’, but we were still relying on cellphones and e-mails. Our goal was to run every trip as efficiently as possible and fill as many seats as we could.

Atlanta-based Printpack donated 50 hours on its aircraft to the effort. The company’s pilots– Ron Current, Jay Gould, Jerry Gould, Erin Brazee and Holly Friedman–were eager to accept any mission. They flew 28 legs, carried 46 evacuees and 1,000 pounds of supplies in seven days.

Robert Fonte of ITC Aviation in La Grange, Ga., heard about our effort through a mass e-mail advertising system. He was in contact with a family staying in a local hotel that had evacuated from New Orleans and was trying to get their children. Their four-year-old son, DeCarlo, and his 17-year-old brother, Ramon, who has cerebral palsy, had evacuated with their older brother. They went to Dallas and their parents went to Georgia.

Ramon needed medical attention and the airlines were unable to move him to his family. We coordinated the mission with Printpack and reunited Ramon and DeCarlo with their parents. DeCarlo was so excited to be on an airplane, but not nearly as excited as his mother was when she saw him.

Another small faith-based organization, the Victims Relief Ministry, contacted us to try to reunite a 16-year-old girl, Brandi, with her father. Her entire family had been separated and her parents and siblings were all in different cities. Brandi had endured several days alone at the Superdome and was not feeling well due to a food virus she contracted at the shelter. She joined us on the flight with Ramon and DeCarlo and continued on to Baton Rouge with us.

In Baton Rouge we picked up another family sent to us by a local Red Cross volunteer. Kimberly, Melvin, Leon and Lysieke had been staying in a shelter since they were rescued by boat from their home. They were going to Houston, where one family member had found a job and a place to live. None of them had ever flown before and they were all scared.

Also on the flight to Houston was Jaun Dreaa, a hairdresser in New Orleans who had just gotten married in May. Her husband was scared and evacuated before the storm hit, but she stayed behind to help her family. She said, “We didn’t do too bad; we only lost one. My uncle was trying to grab onto my aunt, who was partially paralyzed. When he grabbed her shirt, it ripped and she went under.” Dreaa was going to be reunited with her husband, whom she hadn’t seen since before the hurricane.

The donations continue to pour in, from fuel at cost at FBOs to free catering for the flights. Countless individuals and corporations have flown missions for this effort and many are still doing so. Morristown, N.J.-based MCJ Foundation flew several missions in its GIV. One of these missions reunited a new mother with her 15-day-old baby and brought a 70-year-old man who had survived two weeks in his house alone back to his family. At press time it was moving a team of doctors in and out of the region.

We don’t have any exact numbers, but it appears this group has flown more than 100 missions, moved more than 1,000 people and brought in at least 100,000 pounds of supplies to the disaster area. The efforts continued at press time, with Angel Flight coordinating all the flights. For the future, NBAA and Angel Flight are working to develop a committee that will oversee this resource and enable us to respond more quickly next time.