On Tuesday and Friday, because of the generosity of your donations to Operation: Puerto Rico Care-Lift and AirwaysAid 22,000 pounds of supplies were flown into Aguadilla, Puerto Rico (PR). This is the northwest corner of the island that is cut off from San Juan. The airport infrastructure is quite damaged and not open to commercial flights.
However, we were able to work with the miracle-working partners at Spirit Airlines and Lufthansa Technik Puerto Rico who made this special relief flight possible — the biggest relief flight into PR’s second largest airport as of Friday. A Lufthansa Cargo MD-11 has since arrived on Saturday with even more aid. Lufthansa Technik is not only instrumental in handling some logistics for us, but amazingly was already operational again undertaking MRO work.
Flying a fully loaded 228 passenger stretch Airbus A321 is an expensive endeavor under normal conditions and this operation was anything but normal. The logistics and clearances Spirit and Operation Care-Lift faced were daunting. But, Spirit Airlines has shown their true colors with this second relief flight into Aguadilla alone, on top of others into St. Maarten and St. Thomas, USVI.
Supplies such as Pedialyte, diapers, food, small generators, batteries and over 2 tons of water water loaded under each seat in the cabin were acquired and delivered straight to these suffering people, instead of languishing in warehouses. The water, like many of the supplies was off-loaded in a human chain from the cargo hold and the cabin by Spirit team-member, Lufthansa Technik PR staff, and us. With our team on the ground coordinating and delivering supplies first hand, it is hardly seamless. It is at times harrowing and unpredictable. Improvisation is often the word of the day, but it is getting done.
It seemed miraculous and surreal because a week before Operation Puerto Rico Care-Lift didn’t even exist. It began with an appeal from my friend Lara Richardson who went to High School in Northwest Puerto Rico. We were able to charter a small, elderly prop plane. We setup an appeal on GoFund me with a goal of $10,000 and 7,000 pounds to fill the plane. We had contacts and people we know on the island armed with satellite phones and trucks to facilitate direct deliver of the supplies.
We secured special permits but at the last minute, but then disaster struck! The charter operator cancelled our flight. As a backup we had been reaching out to contacts at airlines, including hometown carrier Spirit, who without hesitation said “Yes! We’re all in”. Meanwhile donations of cash and direct supplies climbed well past the six figures, and payload reached 50,000 pounds of supplies. This small ad-hoc charity mushroomed into something much bigger than all of us – much bigger than something we were prepared for.
It was fortuitous that Hurricane Maria hit during September when there is extra capacity in the airline. And ironic that some of their stations in the Caribbean were closed due to the storm, freeing up an A321 for relief missions.
But it gets better. After running the first supplies relief flight into BQN, Spirit doubled down by adding a planes-worth of evacuees to the mix. Due to the heroic logistics efforts of Spirit, The TSA, and FAA, 220 evacuees – many infirm, injured, elderly, babies in diapers, and even pets were able to fly back to safety into Ft Lauderdale, Florida. The word went out less than 24 hours for the flight via Spirit and Airways social media and word of mouth. The flight was sold out in just a few hours. At a fare cost of “free”, it was the bargain of a lifetime – for a lifeline. The return evacuation flight was a bitter-sweet experience for all involved.
At first, there were cheers as the plane pushed back from the make-shift gates. But as we took off from this ravaged island, reality set in and the mood became very somber, people not knowing when and if they would ever return home again.
The compassionate Spirit crew and our team worked side by did our best to comfort these displaced American citizens who were in a state of shock, but very grateful. Our Care-Lift Team and Spirit catered the flight with a free, full complement of snacks and beverages. Many people said they hadn’t eaten much of anything for a week. We all joked that this was one of the few times Spirit didn’t charge passengers for catering, or bags for that matter.
Being on the ground there and hearing the stories from the people who have lived through the devastation of Maria — there are NO words. The deafening silence of the people waiting 4 hours in line fly out of PR on Friday was staggering.
It reminded Care-Lift co-founder Lara Richardson, in particular, who grew up in the area, of the orderly way in which people during her 9/11 experience were behaving. Lara in particular ventured out into the streets to make contact with some of her friends and relationships on the ground to personally deliver some supplies. The town Lara grew up in, was now savaged and barely recognizable.
Unfortunately, more news we heard first hand, is of at least 10 people committing suicide in this region due to lack of supplies this last week. Babies that are going without. One bottle of water per person a day, if they are lucky enough to have the gas to get to it. Gas lines that are 9-15
Gas lines that are 9-15 hour-waits for a $10 limited purchase. Most crushing was that people told us over and over that they were Americans who felt essentially forgotten.
It was life-affirming, however, as these people expressed appreciation in cheers and hugs. We told them “America hasn’t forgotten you”, and because of Spirit and you we had the goods to prove it to them.
Monday morning, we received photos and video of these deserving people receiving our supplies. We have embedded a team leader onto the island who is U.S. Special Forces, along with known and trusted contacts to facilitate and ensure as much of your supply donations get into the hands and mouths of those who need it most.
We are preparing more flights over with supplies, including a third flight tentatively scheduled for Tuesday October 3rd with Spirit Airlines.
At this time we have closed our Amazon Wishlist and have suspended accepting physical supplies due to the overwhelming volume. We estimate we are up to 50,000 pounds of supplies – enough to fill 5 Airbus A321’s.
We are still accepting monetary donations which will aid in our distribution and will be converted into supplies one the grounds and gift cards, to Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Walgreens which have re-opened.
Due to overwhelming generosity, we could use any additional lift in the form of aircraft and shipping. Please contact [email protected] if you have any resources.
We are also providing assistance financially to those evacuating. When we can handle more, we will re-institute our physical donations. Please continue to donate and don’t delay as TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE. Visit our GoFundMe site for details on how you can help and follow us on our Airways’ social media channels.
With more than $150,000 in cash and donations raised translating to approximate 50,000 pounds of supplies, we have now surpassed our financial goal by more than a factor of 10 due to YOUR SUPPORT!
This is a grassroots mission with no overhead powered by over 700 individual donations. We have also had corporate partners step up big time: In particularly our heaviest hitter ION Media, Discovery Communications, Hemisphere Media (owner of PR’s #1 station WAPA-TV 4), Danzignger Kosher Catering, but most of all the incredibly compassionate teams of Spirit Airlines & Lufthansa Technik PR. The Ultra-Low-Cost Carrier, Spirit is often the victim of ridicule and even maligned. The airline is often misunderstood. And like any airline, is not without its faults. But with their Herculean relief efforts, and improved customer friendly operations, hopefully this narrative will change. One things for sure, the passengers on this flight will never forget them.
Spirit promotes themselves “Home of the Bare Fare” but we consider them “Home of the CARE Fare”. They have undertaken these flights on a low key basis, with no interest in self promotion. In fact they selflessly continue to deny press access to the flights as every seat counts for evacuees.
Last but not least we thank the team of Operation PR Care-Lift that has worked round the clock since the beginning in addition to their day jobs. A special shout at the team at 2C Media which has been the base of operations, logistics, and supply staging.
As we began our descent into Ft. Lauderdale, a rainbow formed off the wing. It reminded us of how us even in these endless dark days of hate and vitriol, we are so humbled at the spirit of strength, humanity, and gratitude that we have witnessed since the mission began less than 10 days ago. The cheers echoed through the cabin upon landing were like Jet-A; ever propelling us forward. These people are human beings. These are Americans. We must let them know we haven’t abandoned them.
We have a long way to go, but green-shoots are sprouting. The Enchanted Isle will rise again.
Viva Puerto Rico! Gracias por todo.
Chris Sloan, Carla Kaufman Sloan, Lara Richardson, Don Anderson, Shirley Kay Torres, and The Team of Operation Puerto Rico Care-Lift