By Rose Hoban

For the past week, squadrons of pilots have descended onto the tarmac at the general aviation portion of Raleigh-Durham Airport, bringing their small planes and a willingness to ferry essential supplies to a coast isolated by flooding.

Keep up wtih the latest hurricane news. Sign up for our free Headlines Newsletter.Pilot Ken Haenlein from Southern Pines summed up what was driving the dozens of pilots and hundreds of volunteers who came together to gather food, water, clothing and cleaning and medical supplies for air shipment to parts of the North Carolina coast inaccessible by road for more than a week.

“I’ve been lucky, blessed,” he said as he got ready to make his sixth flight on his plane, which has a payload of 1,500 pounds. “Giving back is something that’s important.”

By the end of Saturday, volunteer pilots had flown 430 flights to deliver 248,182 pounds of supplies, which went largely to shelters.

“Going to be a direct hit”

Operation AirDrop was organized in the immediate wake of Hurricane Harvey, which flooded Houston and other parts of southern and eastern Texas. Ethan Garrity was among other pilots as well as air traffic controllers who organized a similar airlift of supplies into areas affected by flooding, ferrying a quarter million pounds of supplies in eight days. The group also responded to Irma. Hurricane Florence is their third foray into performing air relief work.

Operation AirDrop

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Garrity, who arrived in Raleigh from Ft. Worth, TX, said that his colleagues in Texas and beyond started monitoring Florence several weeks ago.

“We were like they’re gonna get hit and it’s not going to be a glancing thing, it’s going to be a direct hit,” he said. “That was when we really started pushing.”

Garrity was in constant motion Saturday as he moved through the small building used by TAC Air, a company that operates services for small planes and their pilots away from the commercial portion of RDU. Throughout a 15-minute interview, Garrity received numerous calls, texts and in-person messages and gave directions even as he recounted how the week unfolded.

Medical needs have time lag

He said that initially, in the first three to four  days, people are hunkered down, just surviving. But other needs start emerging quickly.

“Everyone prepares for about a 72-hour window and we are seeing that 72 hours may work sometimes, but it comes and goes and… then four days later, they’re not fine,” he said. “Once the muck out phase starts, you can tell because they start requesting these things, ‘We need boots, we need N95 masks, we need gloves, bug spray, Chapstick.’”

Garrity said it’s during the cleanup that many medical needs become apparent.

“Tetanus, animal bites, waterborne pathogens, lack of potable water, when water runs low, they’ll get desperate,” he said. That’s why the group has ferried lots of drinking water and even a 1,500 pound water filtration system that made its way to Lenoir County.

He also noted that many people set aside four to five days of medications in preparation, but as the isolation has been extended in the past week, medical supplies – for needs such as insulin and bandages – have become more pressing.

Cindy Brochure, the mayor of Oak Island who has been one of Garrity’s liaisons on the receiving end, said one of the biggest requests was for, “Diapers, diapers and more diapers.

“Believe it or not, we’ve got four shelters that are filled to capacity with children, because the flooded areas had families,” Brochure said in a telephone interview. “They’re families with children and they were in great need of diapers to the shelters.”

Weight vs volume

The floor of the TAC Air building was marked up with boxes created by red tape. Inside each box were piles of donations that had been weighed and grouped into piles weighing 150 pounds. Pilots could come in and find, say, 6 piles to carry in a plane with a payload of 1,000 pounds.

Garrity said that the balance in a plane was between “weighting out” and “cubing out.”

“Twenty pounds of diapers will cube out one of these aircraft out before it weighs it out, versus water which is 35 pounds a case, but a case is very dense,” he said. “Those are the two critical things for planning and logistics that we have to master.”

A 17-year-old UNC Wilmington student majoring in business and entrepreneurship who had evacuated to her family’s home in Wake Forest helped keep all the supplies flowing efficiently. She got involved with the volunteer effort after organizing the collection of more than 45,000 pounds of donations in her home town.

“Yesterday, we had a problem with a lot of clutter in here, so last night, I was in here until about midnight redrawing the building,” said Lindsay Rifenburg, as she looked around a crowded but organized space, with lines on the floors for volunteers to follow, signs on the walls, and people moving purposefully from place to place. “Now it’s running really good.”

Operation AirDrop Raleigh will be wrapping up flights Sunday evening as roads begin to open to get supplies to areas previously trapped by floodwaters.

Reporting and photos contributed by NC Health News staff Elizabeth Page and Steve Tell

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...