One If By Sea, Two if By Air
The relief effort for the massive Hurricane Dorian damage in the Bahamas involves every mode of transportation available. It takes one back in history to June of 1940, and a place called Dunkirk in France. There, German forces surrounded the remnants of a French army and most of the British Expeditionary Force. The only way out was by sea from a place that had no natural port.
The call for help was heeded by hundreds of British boat owners, non-military people who voluntarily crossed the rough English Channel in craft small enough to enter shallow waters. There, soldiers waded out to meet them, often protecting their rifles by raising them above their heads, and were escorted to larger ships. In a week’s time, more than 300,000 British and French soldiers were evacuated, saving a force of trained men that eventually was part of a winning coalition. Those citizen saviors did not ask for permission or need visas, or any other authority. They just got in their boats and did what had to be done.
Today, under vastly different circumstances, hundreds of small civilian boats and private aircraft have been crisscrossing the 100 miles of water delivering supplies and bringing back refugees who have lost everything but their lives. There are so many vehicles involved that in the chaos of the first few days, rescue planes were getting in each other’s way, creating confusion and even shutting down some airports because of minor accidents. It overwhelmed the organizations that run them. Add to that red tape and delays on both the islands and U.S. airports by officials who have never seen such challenges and insist on playing by the book, resulting in delays for flight plans approval, when Dunkirk speed and improvisation was needed.
A vivid description of the situation comes to us indirectly by way of our friend and local investment manager Nik Bjelajac. He, in turn, is forwarding reports sent to him by David Ehlers, an investment advisor (we wrote about him in the 1970s) who made his money in South Florida and now lives in Las Vegas. He has been receiving messages from his friend, a pilot named Peter Vazquez. This man is a boat captain, but he also is a veteran pilot and it was this skill that made him one of the first to join the rescue effort.
Vazquez is a natural writer with much to say about those trying to help in an unprecedented emergency. Among his stories is that of a man identified only as WARLOCK—apparently, a retired air controller—who seeing the chaos in air space at a Bahamian airport, improvised an air control system to help relieve congestion and provide safety for the many planes trying to take off and land. He describes the patience of the thousands waiting to leave the decimated islands and the heroic efforts by rescuers, who flew from any airport in South Florida that needed them. One incident involved two doctors who were desperate for a ride to Freeport. Vazquez describes the incident. He was talking to a person requesting help for relief workers:
“Somehow, I can’t recall why, but he then asks if we have any other seats available. There are two doctors that are also trying to get to Freeport as well. They were at the Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport and were supposed to catch a flight from there. Something happened with that plane, and they did not get out. Again, YES.
The plane is fully loaded. Every seat is taken. This is how I like to see our planes fly. No wasted space, no empty seats. The doctors on board are young. One is a male from New Zealand, the other a female from Finland. From the beginning of these relief/rescue operations, Kim and I are in awe of the support from around the world. How the hell did a doctor from New Zealand and one from Finland end up with us on a plane going to Freeport, a place they have never been before? I ask them where they are staying in Freeport. I love the answer. Aboard a medical ship."
Vazquez filed daily accounts of such relief work for several weeks and is considering putting them together in book form.
It is a coincidence that Eric Barton’s piece in the October issue of Gold Coast magazine featured a novel seaplane company based in South Florida. The company, founded by a former U.S. Navy fighter pilot, already had routes established to the Bahamas, and seaplanes have more flexibility in finding emergency landing spots, especially in an area surrounded by water. It quickly responded to the transportation crisis in the Bahamas.
This company was launched a few years after another company in the seaplane business, Chalk’s International Airlines, shut down. A former military aviator also started that company. He flew in World War I and started his service in South Florida in 1919. Our only flight on a seaplane was on that airline—to the Bahamas, of course.
The combination of seaplanes and the U.S. Navy strikes a nostalgic chord, at least with those few of us who remember Lt. j.g. Tommy McCormick. Our cousin flew an OSU-2 Kingfisher observation floatplane off the Battleship Tennessee. He was killed over Iwo Jima in February 1945. The family learned little about his death, and the reason came 60 years later. A confidential after-battle report discovered by the curator of the U.S.S. Tennessee Museum suggested that he was likely hit by friendly fire from the big guns arcing their shells over his low flying plane.
So as you think about and pray for the poor souls in the Bahamas, you might remember cousin Tommy as well.
Photos provided by Peter Vazquez