Category 5 Hurricane Irma affected much of the Caribbean in the first half of September, but Puerto Rico escaped the worst of the 150 mph-plus winds. While neighbors in St. Maarten, St. Thomas, Barbuda and Anguilla suffered massive destruction, the U.S. territory became a hub of relief and humanitarian efforts, exporting supplies to those less fortunate. But a week later the entire island found itself in the same situation, if not worse, from Hurricane Maria, which made a direct impact on September 20.
A Category 4 storm at the time of impact, it wiped out the island’s aging power grid, leaving 3.4 million inhabitants in the dark, and without electricity to power water pumps, most were left without running water. Also hit hard was the Commonwealth’s telecommunication system, with virtually every cellphone transmission tower smashed.
As daylight broke over the island, San Juan’s airports began to shake themselves off. Jet Aviation, one of two service providers at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, found that while a hangar was destroyed, the glass-sheathed terminal, designed to resist major storms, was unharmed. Like the rest of the island, the airport was without power, but the FBO’s generators were fired up and the facility, along with the adjoining U.S. Customs station, was up and running within 16 hours of the storm’s passing.
“We went from an electrical economy to a diesel economy overnight,” said Frances Ryan, Jet Aviation San Juan’s marketing and communications director. The facility immediately became a linchpin in the relief and humanitarian operations to the island, handling 1,000 humanitarian flights through the middle of October, and relying on water from underground cisterns installed when the facility was built. Airport Aviation Services, the other FBO there, reopened soon after the storm as well.
Tommy Hill, president of Million Air San Juan, which shares the general aviation handling duties at Fernando Luis Ribas Dominicci Airport (commonly known as Isla Grande) with Signature Flight Support, returned from Miami, where he had evacuated a customer’s Gulfstream G200, the morning after the storm. He then received the aircraft owner’s blessing to begin a series of round trips, ferrying in needed supplies and carrying out people in need. The Million Air terminal and adjoining hangar are built of concrete and suffered no damage. Even a customer’s Learjet 45, grounded by a bird ingestion before the storm and forced to shelter in place, was unharmed. A smaller conventional hangar suffered damage to one wall. Across the field, Signature’s facility lost a hangar and had the glass on the concrete terminal blown out front and back, yet it too was soon back in operation.
In the early aftermath of the storm, flocks of business aircraft began to arrive, bringing in loads of crucial supplies. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban dispatched his 757 six times, delivering nearly one million pounds of food, water, generators and other goods to the Jet Aviation FBO, assisted by Puerto Rico-born basketball player J.J. Barea. Likewise, Houston-based Waste Management dispatched its Falcon 900EX with 3,000 pounds of medical supplies donated by hospitals, as well as generators, saws, clothing and diapers. “The devastation in Puerto Rico is heartbreaking and hard to comprehend,” company president and CEO Jim Fish told AIN. “While we no longer have operations there, offering a helping hand in transporting supplies down there as quickly as possible was just the right thing to do.” Hill noted one particular Citation X that made multiple trips to the airport, unloaded supplies for “whoever needed them,” according to the crew, and left without any fanfare.
Million Air CEO Roger Woolsey, who spent more than a week on the island, dubbed these hundreds of aircraft the Corporate Air Force, adding that they arrived loaded with supplies and left with evacuees. He estimates the tempo of operations suggests they moved as many as 12,000 people. Once people learned that private aviation was willing to evacuate the sick, the elderly and children, the lines at FBOs began to grow. At the height of operations, Woolsey remarked, “We’re not running an FBO right now, we’re running a bus stop.” A hangar at the FBO was converted into a seating area, and guards were hired to prevent people from interfering with the frenetic operations. “Because there was no electricity, the doors and the hangar doors were open and people were just walking onto the ramp unsecured,” Woolsey said. “It was not a normal situation.”
Both Jet Aviation and Million Air praised fuel provider World Fuel Services, which was able to keep pace with the extraordinary demand from the FBOs, which in some cases surpassed 50,000 gallons a day. Hill noted the only bottlenecks occurred when his location’s fuel trucks all found themselves in line at the tank farm.
Keeping the generators going proved crucial. Early on, the unit at Million Air, which was damaged by the storm, failed, and it was two days before a replacement part could be procured from the U.S. Then, the lack of a steady flow of diesel fuel led the facility to run it on jet-A for two days. While it made more smoke, the newly repaired generator kept chugging away. Communications proved tricky as well, as Woolsey discovered. He flew several relief missions in a variety of aircraft ranging from a King Air 350i to a Learjet 60XR, carrying food, volunteer staffers and even a $26,000 military grade satellite receiver/transmitter unit that he had to fly to Ohio to pick up, along with two technicians to set it up at the facility. He and 17 volunteers from the company’s mainland bases, slept in the facility and subsisted on little more than Pop-Tarts and peanut butter sandwiches.
As for the local employees, many were required to move in with family members whose homes fared marginally better during the hurricane. Woolsey recalled trying to send one line service worker home with the guarantee of being paid, after learning the man had lost his entire home. The man surveyed the chaotic scene on the ramp, which was receiving up to 45 relief aircraft an hour, looked at Woolsey and replied, “Boss, I’ve worked at this airport for 25 years and I’ve never in my life seen this. You need me, Puerto Rico needs me. Surely this will calm down at some point; I’ll go take care of my family when that happens.”