At 6:30 a.m. on the morning of Thursday, September 20, 12 volunteers already had arrived at the General Aviation building at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Flooded with morning light, the building atrium was piled with boxes, taped and labeled with aircraft numbers and exact weights. Supplies overflowed in the boxes and in loose piles, scattered in organized chaos: paper towels, water, Huggies and baby formula, Goldfish, Gatorade, feminine hygiene products, Nutri-Grain bars, peanut butter, Dole fruit cups and more. By noon volunteers wearing convivial sticker nametags crowded the room, sorting and weighing and labeling and loading.
Between the early morning of Monday, September 17, and the evening of Friday the 21, Operation Airdrop (OA) had flown more than 96 tons of supplies from Raleigh and surrounding areas to Wilmington, Lumberton, Jacksonville, and other coastal North Carolina towns devastated by Hurricane Florence. With more than 200 pilots, dozens of flights per day, up to 40 volunteers buzzing in ground operations at RDU at any given moment, together, they were making it happen.
The movement was born when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas.
“Our founders were driving down [from Dallas-Fort Worth] to deliver supplies by road,” explains OA operations specialist Allie Hoyt. “They saw the devastation and realized the coastal communities were cut off by floodwaters, which were getting worse even after it stopped raining. They were both pilots and they had a crazy idea: What if we were able to fly to the people who are cut off?”
The Operation Airdrop team recruited hundreds of volunteer pilots and private small aircrafts to fly short missions and drop more than 250,000 pounds of supplies to communities devastated by Harvey. They also helped victims of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Now, a year after its birth, the Texan organization has come to the Carolinas to help in the aftermath of Florence.
“Once we saw the monster that Flo was becoming, we were geared up,” Hoyt tells. “We started reaching out to [nonprofits]. It’s hard to plan in advance for the kind of operation we do; it’s literally fly-by-night.”
Eventually, as Florence’s winds began to pummel the Carolina coast, Hoyt and the Operation Airdrop team settled on RDU as a home base. They put out the call to pilots near and far. Volunteers have flown in from Texas, Florida, Maryland, Missouri, and more.
“We were lucky to find a couple of really great people on the ground who know Raleigh and they’ve been really helpful,” Hoyt continues. “We couldn’t do this without them because we would have planes and nothing to fly.”
Some of the organizations helping in Raleigh include NC Solidarity, Blueprint North Carolina, Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, World Central Kitchen, Southern Vision Alliance, and the Environmental Justice Network, plus plenty of local churches and individuals. Operation Airdrop even attracted the attention of Joe Gibbs Racing, which donated the use of their private jet.
One of the volunteers who helped coordinate at RDU on Friday was Addie Wuensch, a Wilmington native and owner of Bottega Art and Wine Gallery. After evacuating to Atlanta, on her way back home she found herself stranded in Raleigh. But she wasn’t going to sit idle. So ILM ground staff and helping hands recruited through social media have moved thousands of pounds of supplies to Bottega—on Wednesday alone, it was more than a ton. There, folks in need in the Brooklyn Arts District neighborhood have been able to collect items. Volunteers also delivered cargo to Walking Tall Wilmington, a nonprofit group that aids and forms interpersonal relationships with people experiencing poverty and homelessness.
“A lot of the recovery seems to be targeted toward people who have homes,” says Randy Evans, founder of Walking Tall. “I want to bring awareness to those [for whom] the hurricane was a crisis but they were already in a crisis beforehand.”
Walking Tall Wilmington has three mobile units—vans—which it will use to distribute the supplies donated through Bottega. They will focus on helping individuals who lived in tent communities before the hurricane, but all in need are welcome.
“We’ll start loading [the vans], organizing supplies, going throughout New Hanover County seeking to get a lot of what we received to individuals who can’t make it to the [FEMA and Red Cross] drop-off points,” Evans explains. “It’ll be very much word-of-mouth and organic, but we will mobilize and go to places where a lot of people aren’t getting that help.”
Walking Tall is just one of many organizations picking up and distributing supplies from ILM. OA is also working with DREAMS of Wilmington, Vigilant Hope, Wilmington Strong, and Saint Luke AME Church (plus dozens of other churches).
The logistics back at RDU are no easier to manage. “The biggest challenge is the constant changing nature of a disaster,” Hoyt says. On Thursday, for example, chefs working in the Raleigh area for World Central Kitchen asked OA to deliver thousands of hot meals to Wilmington and affected areas. But when the hot meals arrived at RDU, the storage containers meant to keep the food hot were too large for the small, private aircraft to carry.
“We as pilots don’t know the catering world, and they as caterers don’t know what little airplanes are like,” Hoyt recalls. “We went through six versions of a solution before we landed on one. But those hot meals still went out to a community in need. People of this community, of North Carolina, are rallying around each other, and people around the country are rallying around North Carolina. It makes me proud of America, of the aviation community, and I’m happy to be a part of both.
The Operation Airdrop team will stop running missions on Sunday. At that point, Hoyt explains, trucks on the ground will be able to transport more supplies more cheaply than small aircraft. n“But,” Hoyt says, “our hearts will still be with North Carolina.”