How Naples and Fort Myers are pitching in to help the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian

Amy Bennett Williams
The News-Press

For Maria Paterno, it's a labor of love.

The Bahamas are the Fort Myers bail bondswoman's second home, and when she learned about the devastation, she started mobilizing. Although her place was spared, she said her heart goes out to others who weren't so fortunate.

For now, her downtown office is a drop-off hub, but later in the week, she’s going to start getting the stuff to the islands.

Earlier Monday, Fort Myers attorney Tiffany Pereira came to drop off supplies at Paterno’s office. The hurricane's devastation was a great leveler, she said.

“No matter where you are now, we all wind up in the same ground,” Pereira said. “People need help right now – everyone’s homeless there.”

More:Hurricane Dorian: 'Thank God we are alive.' Bahamas native has incredible survival tale

“At this point in time, we’re not even cleared to go over,” Paterno said, “but we love the people and we love the islands (so) we’ll be there as soon as we can.”

So will Brian Roland, owner with his wife Nicole of Crave Culinaire/Venue Naples.

He’s organized a massive social media-fueled private relief effort for the Bahamas that can deliver supplies by boat, yacht and plane as soon as Bahamian and American officials clear access to the islands.

“I made a (social media) post saying we’d open Venue Naples as a drop-off point for supplies, and instantly the community started getting on board,” Roland said.

He put up the post-Sunday. Now, supplies are coming in, other business owners in Fort Myers, Naples, and Marco Island have offered their spaces as additional drop-off points, and he has assembled about 20 boats and planes so far.

More:Hurricane Dorian devastated parts of the Bahamas. Here's how you can help

“Our little post went up about 48 hours ago and as of (11 a.m. Tuesday) it’s been shared by over 2,500 people. And it has about 250,000 views,” he said.

Although many want to help, Roland warned that the situation could be dangerous or at least much more difficult than some anticipate: “First, we don’t know yet if there will be docks in those areas. We don’t know if there will be airstrips for planes to land. We have no idea. So a lot of what people want to do may not be possible. Furthermore, you have enough gas to get there, but can you fuel up and get back?”

Todd Turrell, president of the Naples-based marine and environmental consulting firm, Turrell Hall & Associates, knows the terrain and beauty of the Bahamas well, having lived and worked there since the 1970s.

Images of resorts and private homes with their once lush landscapes that have been wiped out are horrendous to see on Facebook posts coming out of the Bahamas, he said.

He rattles off the names of resorts where he spent happier times that are now a shell of their former lives.

“Everybody is wiped out,” he said. “A lot of (residents) live in low-lying areas and don’t have cell phones. It’s terrible. It’s the storm of the century.”

Turrell, a permanent resident of the Bahamas who wrote a book, “A History of the Bahamas Through Maps,” saw an image of the international customs building at the Grand Bahama International Airport at Freeport, Bahamas, where he often lands with his private airplane.

“Waves were lapping against the ramp at the customs building that was built 15 feet in the air,” he said. “The water was almost in the building.”

Turrell wasted no time Tuesday making calls to find out what supplies are needed in the Bahamas and fielding calls with people who want to help. He plans to take his plane later this week to the Bahamas to deliver supplies. Turrell said he can carry 1,000 pounds on his airplane.

“I am trying to find out exactly what the needs are,” he said.

That’s also how Steve Popper, president of Naples-based Meals of Hope, which operates a fortified meal-packing charity and 13 food pantries in Collier County, spent his day Tuesday finding out what his organization can do.

Meals of Hope has done disaster relief in Texas after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, at home in Southwest Florida after Hurricane Irma that same year and elsewhere.

Volunteers for Meals of Hope’s local pantries got ready for Hurricane Dorian last week in case the storm had impact in Collier. Those supplies for immediate needs, like water and snacks, can be made available immediately to the Bahamas, Popper said.  

Meal-packing events with the fortified and non-perishable meal ingredients can be organized and a container can be shipped to the Bahamas.

“We are trying to find out the weight restrictions now,” he said.

Popper expects to have some meal-packing events scheduled for this weekend to be sent to the Bahamas.

Rotary Clubs are geared up and a list of what’s needed in the Bahamas went out to 2,400 Rotary members in the district, said Rich Kirschner, district governor for Rotary District 6960. The district covers from north of Bradenton south to Marco Island and the rural areas of Clewiston, LaBelle and Arcadia.

The list covers cleaning supplies, bedding, non-perishable food, personal hygiene and more. Donations can be dropped off at Ray the Mover, 3861 Domestic Ave., in Naples.

“I have asked people to stay with the list,” Kirschner said. “We only want to send what we know can be delivered.”

“We have Rotarians on the other coast who frequently go to the Bahamas,” he said, adding that private pilots and boat owners in Fort Lauderdale will deliver supplies shortly.

“We will be collecting stuff for the next two to three weeks, maybe beyond,” he said.