After a long week of prep, riding out the edge of Hurricane Dorian in Charleston, and clean up, a Monday morning with a cup of coffee and fifteen sticky notes full of unstarted lists seemed refreshing. My phone chirped just after 10:00 am, text: “hey bud, have a client that might be heading to the Bahamas to drop off some relief supplies and would like a photographer to ride along and help out”. This wasn’t on any of those fifteen bright yellow stickies. Inside me was “fuck it drop everything and let’s go”, practical me prodded “you have a thousand things backed up so enjoy that coffee and this day normality”. I replied, when? 1:30 pm today, the phone flashed. I replied: I’ll be there.
I quickly start firing off emails asking for a few more days on projects, finding a photographer to cover a shot I had scheduled Tuesday. I was out the door at 1:00 pm with a camera bag and a change of clothes.
I met the Client HUK (a major fishing apparel company) at their warehouse in North Charleston, SC. Their friends in the fishing communities of the Bahamas and Florida had requests from physicians on the ground for shoes. Shoes? Apparently due to the lack of foot protection outbreaks of Tetanus and other diseases were beginning to show up in numbers through scrapes and cuts in unprotected feet. HUK was donating 10,000 pairs of shoes and we were loading them into a box truck case by case. We crammed about 4,000 - 5,000 pairs on the first 27’ truck. I met Lange during this process who worked for HUK and would be my partner on this mission. We grumbled that bright yellow tuck out of the warehouse at 5:00 pm with a ten-hour road trip to Palm Beach, Florida stretched out in front of us on I-95.
As we rolled south we were in hourly contact with the airports and organizers working out logistics of where and when our shipment would go. There were two airports and multiple types of aircraft being sent to several islands depending on the need and content of the relief packages. Our contact coordinating the flights said “I hope you’re comfortable around dead bodies”. There were still a lot of bodies being recovered and cholera was becoming an issue. Volunteers were being quarantined at the Stuart Airport (just north of Palm Beach) as they returned from aide drops. Coffee, sticky notes, not a chance. We were given our directive around 11:00 pm to be at the Palm Beach Jet Center at 6:30 am. The big yellow box truck rumbled into a hotel across from the airport at 2:30 am for a brief rest and a nap.
At 6:30 am Lang and I filled out paperwork at flight ops and started unloading the box truck into the relief warehouse. We’d be on a small King Air with a mixed bag of goods headed to Marsh Harbor. Our flight consisted of 100 pairs of shoes, 300 lbs of ice, cases of bottled water, goldfish (the snack food kind), 200 blue tarps and multiple machine parts.
The aircraft was full, I mean full to the point of Lang and the pilot were in the two front seats and I was in the rear seat at the back of the aircraft unable to see them through the piles of boxes and coolers. As we shuttered down the runway the goldfish packets rained from there boxes onto my outstretched legs resting on some kind of spare parts. The pilot squawked through the headset “this is the heaviest load I’ve put in tone of these, she can take it” and she did.
Crammed between boxes I sort of enjoyed the break, physically and mentally from the past 24 hours and peered at the blue Atlantic below as we skirted off the Florida coast. As we headed east the typical pilot to flight-ops chatter rattled over the headsets with a few fun alerts. Apparently a few pilots turned off their beacons so they could island-hop without the FAA regulations, which I didn’t seem to mind but this meant they didn’t appear on radar so we were on visual alert. And as warned here came low flyers from three-o’clock trying to cut the flight paths and slide in which makes for unpleasant pilots and colorful inflight commentary. It is pretty amazing at the speed which these planes travel when you watch the rip past in realtime.
We approached Marsh Harbor without any other incidents and dropped to the runway. I had seen this before growing up in South Florida, all leaves completely stripped bare from all vegetation and trees snapped about ten feet from the ground as if mother nature went through with a measuring stick and marked them prior to destruction. The air-traffic tower and hangers were mostly destroyed in crumpled steel, aircraft were flipped upside down to the sides of the runway, a few US military aircraft were pulling touch and goes and an off-road vehicle drove by with a few well-armed men. We unload the cargo to a hand-pulled tug, on loaded two worn aid workers and spun back west toward the Florida coast.
We landed about 2:00 pm, cut through customs, dropped the box truck in a strip mall off of Gun Club Rd, picked up our bags from the airport Mariott, caught an Uber to Miami airport and boarded a commercial flight back to Charleston. We landed in Charleston at 6:30 pm.
In a span of thirty hours, we loaded a truck with 5,000 pairs of shoes, drove 523.3 miles(at 65 mph), unloaded the same truck, loaded an airplane, flew to the Bahamas, unloaded said aircraft, flew back to West Palm, drove to Miami airport(downed two vodka sodas), and flew back to Charleston. It felt like a full day of work, in a good way.
Now back to those yellow sticky notes.