Matt Wideman of Winter Park thought of himself as “a big Bahamas guy,” and in the aftermath of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Dorian, he wanted to do something to help.
So he asked a friend if he knew where he could find a Black Hawk helicopter. Two weeks later, Wideman, his Love & Life Foundation team and their partners have flown dozens of flights on the affected islands of Grand Bahama and the Abacos, delivering tons of food, medicine and equipment and becoming a lifeline for entire communities.
“I’ve never done anything like this,” an exhausted Wideman said via phone from the islands. “I just picked up the phone.”
Now, with the immediate crisis past, they’re trying to help the Bahamas provide beds and shelter for the thousands left homeless in the storm’s wake. But he says his group and others need immediate help when it comes to two crucial things: mobilizing pilots and acquiring fuel.
Within hours of asking Mark Moore, a fellow member of the Orlando chapter young professional group YPO, about finding a Black Hawk, he was pointed to Firehawk Helicopters of Leesburg, which was able to supply one.
Black Hawks can lift 6,000 pounds compared with the typical 1,000- to 1,500-pound capacity of smaller helicopters, he said.
With the help of hired pilots, Wideman, his brother Nick, their friend Gustavo Ortega and Pastor Alex Burgos from River Orlando Church started taking cargo flown in from planes to airstrips and deliver it where it was needed.
“When the storm surge came through, it just blew out everything,” Wideman said. “It was like a nuclear bomb went off.”
The Bahamian government was very limited in what it could do because of the devastation, he added, with non-governmental organizations playing a huge role in the first few weeks.
They flew in five to six times a day into one settlement of between 40 to 50 people, called The Farm, two miles down a dirt road from any other means of access.
They also visited a settlement of Haitians and Guatemalans, who didn’t want to be evacuated to the main islands because they were afraid the Bahamian government would deport them – making the Black Hawks their only means of survival.
The Mastroianni family of Jupiter and Charles Conigliaro of the Stuart Sailfish Club, an active nonprofit that allowed for immediate donations to buy food and supplies, flew more than 180 tons of relief aid out of Stuart on more than 80 flights over the first nine days, Conigliaro said.
They used old Douglas cargo planes dating from the mid-20th century to move food, generators, medical supplies, fuel and other needs.
“We’ve had over 150 volunteers,” Conigliaro said. “The outpouring of support has been just amazing. Everybody is coming together for this effort. It’s been absolutely phenomenal. Corporations, private individuals – everyone wants to help.”
The Cleveland Clinic basically took over an airstrip at hard-hit Marsh Harbour, with Wideman and other operators helping take out generators and medical equipment to some of the isolated areas. AdventHealth also sent teams of physicians to the islands.
As the Bahamas moves further away from the Sept. 1 landfall, Conigliaro said the response efforts have shifted.
“We’re pretty done with our efforts here,” Conigliaro said. “We’re looking towards the second phase of it, the reconstruction part.”
With that in mind, Wideman called up the Las Vegas events company Insomniac to see where they could get their hands on some Shiftpod pop-up shelter tents for homeless residents.
“So I call them because they put them up at all these big events,” he said. “And they said, ‘What if we did one better? What if we donated you some?’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ I thought it might be, you know, not many.”
But in less than 24 hours after he got in touch with them, Insomniac had rounded up and donated 750 tents – enough to shelter 6,000 people.
“Members of Insomniac’s core logistics team … are on the ground in Florida and will travel to Freeport and Marsh Harbour … to assist with the setup of all the temporary shelters and provide additional logistical support,” Insomniac spokeswoman Page Bakunas said Tuesday.
Non-governmental organizations and nonprofits have hundreds of thousands of pounds of supplies in hangars ready to move, but he said the stream of planes and helicopters needs to continue.
So Love & Life has set up a GoFundMe page to raise $500,000 in donations to go toward fuel and pilots for further trips.
“The situation here is coming to a place of stabilization,” Wideman said. “We’re not stopping. We’re turning this into a rebuilding effort. We want to see The Bahamas get better, and see people live their lives and love their lives.”