Care ramps up quickly for disaster-relief efforts in Haiti

 - February 18, 2010, 5:32 AM

Soon after the magnitude-7.0 earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, killing more than 200,000 people and displacing more than a million more, relief began arriving by air. Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport–the main gateway to
the island nation’s ruined capital, Port-au-Prince–re-opened two days later as
humanitarian flights began streaming in.

While it is impossible to place a value on the number of lives saved by the timely delivery of critical supplies and medical personnel, the cost of the flight hours of volunteered business aircraft equates to more than $3 million, according to Corporate Aviation Responding in Emergencies (Care), the industry first-response network that arranged for hundreds of flights into and out of Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic carrying thousands of passengers and tons of crucial relief supplies. Immediately after the disaster, the group acted as the focal point for the business aviation community’s emergency relief effort. “NBAA has been proud to work with Care and support its outstanding efforts to help coordinate the business aviation community’s response to the Haiti crisis,” said NBAA president Ed Bolen. “The generosity and selflessness of the Care volunteers ensured that medical teams, life-sustaining supplies and other much needed equipment reached children and families in need.”

Care (not to be confused with the international charity CARE), which grew out of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, started as a small group of people with ties to business aviation who felt they could make a difference to the devastated Gulf Coast community. Care president Marianne Stevenson recalled the seeming inertia that existed after the hurricane slammed into New Orleans. “It was 24 hours after Katrina hit and we were wondering why nobody was responding.” Her husband, Doug, a corporate pilot, spoke with his employer at the time, who allowed him use of the company’s Challenger in any way that he could find to help. They began organizing relief flights into Baton Rouge, carrying supplies in and refugees out. Through communications on networks such as NBAA’s Airmail online forum, the couple made contact with others in the industry with similar ideas.

Among them was Robin Eissler, herself a hurricane evacuee a year earlier, who felt empathy for the Katrina victims. Her newly delivered twins were in a Florida hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (Nicu) when Hurricane Jeanne roared ashore, forcing her and her husband’s evacuation. “Being separated from critically ill newborns is a tough thing to endure,” she said, “so my personal involvement in Care arose from the separation of Nicu babies from their parents during Hurricane Katrina, and that was my call to action, trying to get those parents back to those children.”

Eissler, who is currently vice president of aircraft broker Jetquest, said the company was able to use one of the aircraft in its inventory for relief flights. Her company contacted Stevenson and her husband for advice on how to get into the disaster area and sought ways they could help alleviate the suffering. “During Katrina we tried really hard to go in the front door,” said Eissler. “We talked to the Red Cross, we talked to Fema and the Louisiana Governor’s office and nobody would use us.”

Eventually the group found eager acceptance from religious charities seeking ways to transport food and other supplies into now isolated areas. “Baptist churches were taking everybody in in towns like Houma and Hammond and they weren’t getting any supplies,” she said. “There were hundreds of people who didn’t have food, so we ran the bulk of our efforts for those types of organization.” Soon larger charities began requesting flights, and as word spread, other companies began donating use of their aircraft. The group estimates it ran approximately 175 missions, transporting more than 1,000 people and several hundred thousand pounds of supplies. It was there that the group developed its own “hub-and-spoke” supply distribution system. Larger aircraft would be used to bring passengers and supplies into a certain airport, where they would be transferred onto smaller aircraft to land in areas where the roads had been cut off.

As the military and relief organizations gradually stepped up their response, Care’s contribution to the Katrina effort began winding down. “All of the other emergency response things that we could have put in place, we really didn’t think we would need them again,” said Stevenson, adding that the group members did discuss what would be needed to make Care’s response more efficient if another disaster occurred. “One thing that was effective is that we had talked with NBAA and negotiated an agreement that, in another crisis, the association would point people to us, which was the reason we were so successful,” she said. “The instantaneous credibility given to us by NBAA has encouraged so many more donors, so many more people looking to assist us in so many different facets, so that was instrumental.”

Ready for the Next Disaster
For nearly five years Care remained dormant, but with news of the devastation in Haiti, the group quickly moved into action. “Marianne activated the relief organizations that Care has stayed in contact with since Katrina, and I went out searching for the new relief organizations,” said Eissler. “It was incredibly easy in Haiti because there are so many missions and charitable organizations doing work down there, so what took us four to five days during Katrina, we had done in hours on Haiti.”

The pair also began fielding the offers of industry assistance forwarded by NBAA, which soon set up a registry on its Web site for those pledging their aircraft or their skills. More than 340 aircraft were volunteered, from which Care matched flights for medical and charity organizations based on availability and need. Initial flights carried doctors and medical supplies directly into Port- au-Prince, but as the military and international relief flights increased, the group shifted its attention to other less publicized but no less desperate areas.

“We stayed away from Port-au-Prince as much as we could and a lot of the flights that did go in were turboprops, which were able to park on the grass and therefore didn’t get in the way of the big relief aircraft,” said Eissler.

To handle the growing flow of supplies–which at one time completely filled a 10,000-sq-ft hangar at Fort Lauderdale Executive airport loaned by Windsor Jet Management–the group established a supply chain that stretched from Florida to Santiago in the Dominican Republic, where ground contacts were able to set up a storage warehouse. Smaller aircraft such as Caravans, King Airs and Pilatus PC-12s were then used to distribute the goods to smaller airports around Haiti.

In the Leogane region, near the quake’s epicenter, the only aircraft able to land using a straight stretch of shrub-bordered road as a runway were high-wing Caravans supplied by Connecticut-based Tradewind Aviation. On one such flight, the group sent down siphon hoses along with the supplies, so jet fuel siphoned from the aircraft’s fuel tanks could be used to run a generator at a nearby hospital. The group even found itself conducting some foreign relations. “We got the mayors of the little local towns where we were landing to write us letters that declared those as port-of-entry airports so that we wouldn’t have to land in Cap Haitien or Port-au-Prince and then come to their airports, said Eissler. “We had no idea that we were going to get involved at that level, but that’s what it took to get the airplanes in.”

At the start of the crisis Care was inundated with offers of assistance and pleas for help. The group not only arranged flights, but also filled empty seats offered by charter providers with aircraft heading for the region, and marshaled cargo to fill donated space on airliners and even cruise ships heading to Haiti.

Above all, Care acted as a network to bring groups together during the crisis. One desperate plea for food from an aid organization caring for thousands of refugees resulted not only in the airlift of 3,500 pounds of food, but also in its being connected with agencies in Haiti that currently had supplies to distribute.
“We gave 20 hours a day for the first two weeks,” said Stevenson, who in her regular job is CEO of Sacramento-based aircraft management company StrategyAero.

More than a month after the initial disaster, Stevenson is grappling with how to ramp down the organization’s involvement. “It is not Care’s intent to be a sustained relief transportation group, because of the inefficiency of it,” she said. “We want to bring corporate aviation and general aviation assets into an area of crisis when there are absolutely no other means to getting in there.”

While relief and medical organizations plan for what will be an extended mission in Haiti, for most, one key issue remains unanswered. “In everybody’s emergency response plan it seems that they have planned for everything from the supplies they are going to bring to who is going to participate, but they haven’t really ever addressed their transportation needs,” Stevenson said. “That’s what all of them are just now scrambling to understand, and apparently Care is their answer.”

On February 19, Port-au-Prince Airport reopened to commercial flights, providing the organizations with a more normal route of entry into the devastated area.

As for Care’s future, its leadership is considering reorganizing as a formal non-profit organization, with a targeted wheels-up response within 12 hours of a disaster. Stevenson’s vision calls for four pre-ordained airports around the country where supplies could be accepted in time of emergency, along with the creation of a database of aircraft providers and medical organizations that could be swiftly set in motion to trim the group’s response time. “It ran more smoothly than it did the first time,” said Stevenson. “If there is a next time, we will be incredibly prepared.”