Suffolk crew flies to aid Bahamas

Published 10:36 pm Friday, September 13, 2019

On Sept. 1, the eye of Hurricane Dorian made landfall on the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas with maximum sustained winds of 185 miles per hour. According to the National Hurricane Center, it’s the strongest hurricane on record to affect the Bahamas.

At least 50 lives have been lost in the Bahamas as a result of the hurricane, according to on Thursday, with roughly 2,500 people missing amidst the catastrophic damage.

“What happened there sort of escapes words,” said Christopher Smith, a contract pilot for Skydive Suffolk, which has assisted in relief efforts in the Bahamas. “Especially when you fly in the first time.”

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On Friday, members of the Skydive Suffolk team that helped provide airborne relief recalled the devastation they saw in the Bahamas from Hurricane Dorian.

They recalled descending by plane into Treasure Cay and seeing palm tree forests turned into broken, scattered matchsticks.

“I’ll never forget the first time we made it into Treasure Cay, where a lot of our ground operations were based out of,” said Ross Leventhal, captain of one of Skydive Suffolk’s two planes for this operation.

They landed on the runway and pulled onto the ramp to offload supplies. Masses of people began to gather, Leventhal said, because that’s where they knew the relief was coming.

“You just see hundreds if not thousands of people just gathered there,” Leventhal said. “It was really eye-opening as to the level of devastation.”

Skydive Suffolk was called in for air support by Blue Tide Marine, and the Suffolk crew responded with their best, unbridled efforts.

Planes were loaded with supplies at Fort Lauderdale, Fla. These intense circuits of relief efforts started early in the morning and ran late into the evening.

They spent the hours leading up to missions packing supplies for air transport in a 100-degree hangar with no air conditioning or fans, loading them onto the planes and strapping them in.

It then took just over an hour by air to get to the Bahamas from Fort Lauderdale, according to Leventhal.

“That’s when we would be eating whatever food or rations or whatever we could get our hands on, (and try) to catch up on water,” Leventhal said.

They had about 15 minutes on arrival to get all their drops done before they had to fly to North Eleuthera or Nassau to refuel, then return to Fort Lauderdale to do it all over again.

“We’d go land, work extremely hard for about 15 minutes offloading the aircraft and then get back in, fly back and start the process all over again back in the hot hangar, loading up supplies, getting our next mission assignment and getting back in the air,” Leventhal said. “It was a non-stop hustle.”

They kept hustling, day in and day out, but on top of feeling tired, they felt rewarded.

“It was definitely hard work, but it was incredibly rewarding to be able to just day in and day out — hours upon hours — just load food, load water,” said Gear Manager Mikel Manthey, son of Skydive Suffolk co-owners Mike and Laura Manthey. “I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I’m glad to have been able to help the way I did.”

They brought in dirt bikes and other vehicles that allowed ground teams to reach people in villages that were cut off.

“The vehicles allowed the teams on the ground to be more mobile, and to be able to get to people who were stuck,” Mikel Manthey said. “Especially the dirt bikes. I’ve seen videos of those guys using those. It allowed them to get to people that otherwise may never have been found and may never have known that there was a place where food and water was being delivered.”

They airdropped homemade “survival buckets” stuffed with water, food and medicine. Parachutes attached to these buckets were made out of Home Depot tarps, according to Skydive Suffolk Flight Instructor Terry Wood, which could also be used for shelter.

“We had a great success rate with those,” Wood said about the survival buckets.

It was the first time that Skydive Suffolk had assisted with a disaster of this magnitude, and every single person on the mission was grateful for the opportunity.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” Mike Manthey said. “These people needed help so bad, and there’s so much to do down there that it was great to be able to go down there. It meant the world to us.”

Pilot Paul Werbin was contacted by Leventhal to assist Skydive Suffolk in the Bahamas. Werbin had spent this past winter in the Abaco Islands and was eager for the chance to do what he could for the people trapped in this disaster.

“I talked to people who huddled their whole families under a sheet of plywood after the storm took the house down,” Werbin said. “I don’t think anyone was prepared for the ferocity of this event.”

He ran into people he knew from the Abacos and heard how they survived long days and nights in the devastation.

“it’s hard to see what these people went through,” he said.

He and others on the team were also impressed by all of the donations that came in by the truckload to Fort Lauderdale.

“No matter how little of a donation or how little support you can do for any type of natural disaster or event like this, no matter how small it is, it always helps,” Mike Manthey said. “Every little bit is appreciated (by) the people who are affected by it.”

Every donation is another piece of the puzzle, like Werbin said.

“Our part was one piece of the puzzle, but I think it was a big piece,” Werbin said. “We came out feeling like we really did a lot of good, and we were able to carry such a huge amount.

“It was a lot of people coming in, but being able to come in and deliver vehicles and deliver a ton of food was really important, and the people on the ground were so grateful.”