SWFL groups tackle logistics of delivering aid to Bahamas

Naples chef Brian Roland knew he wanted to help with Hurricane Dorian relief efforts in the Bahamas even before the storm made landfall Sept. 1, but every time he had a plan in place, it'd fall apart at the last minute, making an already difficult situation even more so.

"As soon as the wheels would turn, we'd get a wrench in them and we'd have to stop, reassess and redirect," he said of his efforts to collect and deliver supplies to the Bahamas. "So much was changing so quickly; at one point planes were set to go and then moments later they were shutting down the airstrip they were flying to."

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Roland and his wife, Nicole, co-own Crave Culinaire/Venue Naples, which they turned into a donation collection center as soon as Hurricane Dorian started hurtling toward the Bahamas.

Venue Naples Co-Owner Nicole Roland, left, helps unload over 2,200 diapers from Peggy Moberg's car at Venue Naples on Tuesday, September 3, 2019. Moberg is the president of Naples Wings of Hope, a Collier County charity that was created after Hurricane Irma that focuses on providing basic essentials to those in need.

"My wife and I remembered what it felt like when a Category 5 was coming toward us two years ago," he said.

"We had memories of post-Irma and all of the challenges our community endured, but more importantly we remembered the unity we had as a community and how we all came together, so we both made a quick decision that we wanted to open up Venue Naples as a donation drop-off center."

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Roland's call to action quickly garnered traction on social media, with his initial Facebook status asking for donations being shared more than 4,000 times.

He said he doesn't know how many planes and boats have made trips to the Bahamas so far, but it's "a lot," and he estimates that Venue Naples has filled at least 10 semitrailers with supplies.

"At this point most of our efforts are being transitioned from receiving and processing supplies to the distribution of supplies," he said. "We can collect all day long, but that doesn't do anything for the people over there, so now we're focusing on getting the right stuff to the right people."

Volunteers sort through donations that will be taken to the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian at Venue Naples on Tuesday, September 3, 2019. Venue Naples is collecting a variety of items including construction materials, non-perishable food items, medical supplies, toiletries, baby supplies, survival items, clothing, and cleaning supplies, as well as monetary donations.

A group of Naples-based pilots are teaming with Roland to deliver locally donated supplies to the Bahamas. Volunteer flight missions began Monday, according to the Naples Airport Authority.

Naples Vice Mayor Gary Price and Terry Spurlock, senior flying ambassador to the Bahamas, are spearheading the effort among local pilots.

"This storm has really brought the pilot community together," Spurlock said in a statement issued by the Airport Authority.

Friday, Spurlock delivered tents, lanterns, air mattresses, diapers and other items to Nassau. 

Stan Mleczko, president of the nonprofit Sundowners Flying Club, flew a plane full of supplies from Page Field in Fort Myers to Nassau late last week.

He said he dropped the supplies — which included baby food, dog food, diapers and 48 cases of water donated by Costco — at an air hangar that was being used as a warehouse for donations.

Mleczko said the club plans on making more trips in the coming weeks, but the Federal Aviation Administration has started limiting the number of private planes flying into the Bahamas.

"The general aviation community has been doing marvelous work, so much so that the FAA has started to make it harder for the private pilots to fly in with supplies because there's just been too many small planes coming in and out," he said.

Christopher Fernstrom, 14, left, and Lisa Roland, right, sort through donations that will be taken to the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian at Venue Naples on Tuesday, September 3, 2019.

Another wrench in the relief supply chain is a concern among donors about money and supplies going to the wrong people as rumors of scams and frauds have started to circulate, Roland said.

"It's been crazy to see how quickly people have become almost angered that they were hearing rumors about scams, and it honestly started slowing down our process because we've been busy fielding those calls and helping people sort through their emotions rather than focusing on the physical work that needs to be done," he said. 

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Collier County Sheriff Kevin Rambosk, whose office has helped Roland coordinate his donation efforts, said the best way for people to avoid getting scammed when giving monetary donations is by donating to an established organization.

"If someone wants to take advantage of the situation, then they begin soliciting donations rather than the donor finding them, and we find that to be one of the biggest problems," Rambosk said.

"So the rule of thumb is for you to make the contact, and look to already established organizations that you're comfortable with and perhaps have even donated to before."

Becky Gust packs donations into boxes that will be taken to the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian at Venue Naples on Tuesday, September 3, 2019. Gust spent the day volunteering with her daughter, Kylie Gust, 11, who she said "raided the neighborhood" on Monday, collecting enough donations from neighbors to fill her mother's SUV.

Roland said the situation in the Bahamas is still constantly changing: a Tuesday morning flight that was scheduled to go to Abaco Islands, one of the hardest-hit areas, had to be re-routed to Nassau as evacuations get underway on Abaco.

"There are so many efforts going on right that I've heard that the warehouses in Nassau are filling up," he said. "So there's just a lot going on and we've just got to keep our ears to the pavement, trust the pipelines and communications that we've built with people in the Bahamas, steer clear of a lot of crazy rumors and do our best to keep pushing our efforts."

For more information about Venue Naples' hurricane relief effort, visit: www.venuenaples.com/dorian/

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