Inside Bahamas Habitat’s mobile command center

September 1, 2011

Bahamas Habitat's mobile command center

Bahamas Habitat mobilizes quickly after natural disaster, as was proven by the organization's leading role in the Haiti relief flights in 2010 that earned the National Aeronautic Association's Outstanding Achievement in Public Benefit Flying award. The group sprang into action just as quickly for the Bahamas Islands in the wake of Hurricane Irene.

Bahamas Habitat Aviation and Disaster Relief Coordinator Cameron King, who lives in Knoxville, Tenn., was in Fort Lauderdale ready to conduct reconnaissance flights of the islands the day after the hurricane hit. And her volunteer ground crew—a team of three from North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama—were on site at their staging area at Fort Lauderdale Executive just as quickly. Gives new meaning to going mobile.

What is usually the Banyan Air Service Coconut Palm Conference Room is now the nerve center for all of the Bahamas Habitat relief operations where they’ve coordinated more than 50 volunteers. The room, with its bare walls, a table and chairs, is transformed into a place where pilots, dispatchers, ground support crew, and shoppers converge. Envelopes taped to the wall indicate where to get petty cash and where to put receipts. Whiteboards contain base notes and flight assignments, and snacks are available for volunteers who can’t step away for lunch. Laptops are tapped into Banyan’s free guest wireless service to track flights and send updates to volunteers on the Bahamas Habitat distribution list.

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Volunteer Addison Shock coordinates ground logistics, from sending volunteers on shopping runs to organizing donated items in a T-hangar. “Yesterday the hangar was pretty empty,” Shock said Aug. 30. “It’s a godsend” that it’s stocked, he said. The supplies are organized by category into food, water, carpentry supplies, linens, towels, and five-gallon buckets. Calvary Chapel near the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport provided four pallets filled with tarps, generators, food, and water. Catherine Ahles of Premeir Aircraft Sales based at the airport donated an SUV full of food to fill an aircraft. Later, she used money that had been donated to Bahamas Habitat to buy more relief items.

Catherine Ahles of Premier Aircraft Sales donated an SUV full of food to fill an aircraft.

Catherine Ahles of Premier Aircraft Sales donated an SUV full of food to fill an aircraft.

“There’s an art to this shopping,” Ahles said. She looks for high-protein items and compares costs by the ounce or item to find the best deal. What doesn’t need water or heat for preparation? What would taste good at room temperature?

Bahamas Habitat initially turned away pilots who were volunteering for missions because the group didn’t have enough supplies to deliver. Now that it does, it’s up to Cary Farrington, an instrument-rated private pilot, to organize and dispatch the flights. Now a student ministries associate director for missions at Mount Bethel United Methodist, Farrington is relying on his training at previous jobs when he helped dispatch aircraft. One of his successes so far? A Baron flying from Showalter Flying Services at Orlando’s Executive Airport to Fort Lauderdale Executive to drop off 1,000 pounds of supplies landed within minutes of the Bonanza that would then take the supplies to the Bahamas.

“The goal is to get as many planes full of supplies from here to the islands that need it,” Farrington said.

The staff at Banyan Air Services assists the effort as they can while performing their job duties, including relaying messages. One pilot called Banyan early Aug. 31 to request a pair of size 11 men’s shoes for a security guard on the Bahamas who needed them. The pilot would be flying in later that morning to pay for the shoes if Bahamas Habitat could get them to the airport.

The lynchpin of the operation is King, who set the team up with their duties, allowing her to fly missions when needed or handle the remaining mobilization efforts. “Cameron has such a brilliant overview in her mind,” said volunteer Sarah Stewart, who is in charge of hospitality and people care during the relief effort. “It’s been such an incredible blessing the way people come together.”

The disaster relief airlift ends Sept. 2, and the organization will then turn to its support of “long-term, sustainable efforts” on the Bahamas.

Whiteboards and dry-erase markers tracked and scheduled flights just as well as software packages in times of disaster.
Alyssa J. Miller

Alyssa J. Miller | AOPA Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor

AOPA Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor Alyssa J. Miller has worked at AOPA since 2004 and is an active flight instructor.