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Ohio University delivers 1,500 pounds of supplies from Athens to Puerto Rico


If there were any doubts about what condition Puerto Rico would be in two weeks after Hurricane Maria, they were erased the moment Ohio University’s airplane touched down in San Juan.

“About every other hangar was missing a roof. Every other airplane was flipped upside down,” OHIO Chief Pilot Nicholas Lather said. Lather and fellow captain Anthony Amos flew the plane to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Oct. 4, then on to San Juan on Oct. 5 to deliver emergency relief supplies, most of which were gathered in Athens in less than 24 hours.

The relief effort was started by Dr. Tania Basta, chair of the Department of Social and Public Health in the College of Health Sciences and Professions, who wanted to help the U.S. territory after talking with friends at the University of Puerto Rico. Due to the plane’s upcoming schedule, she had less than a day to gather any supplies she could. The plan was for Lather to pick up another 800 pounds in Fort Lauderdale through Operation Airdrop.

Ultimately, Lather picked up only 200 pounds in Florida after Basta’s efforts raised 1,500 pounds.

“I was speechless most of the day. It was just one of those things that I never dreamed would happen that fast,” Basta said later. “It was an amazing operation to watch unfold.”

Besides physical donations, the effort raised $1,000, which Basta and colleagues took to area grocery stores to buy the most-needed supplies. Some of those stores – Kroger, C&E Stores and Family Dollar – made their own donations, Basta said.

Volunteers gathered the supplies in Grover Center and took them to the Gordon K. Bush Airport, where they were packaged and loaded aboard the University plane.

Lather and Amos were able to deliver supplies directly to National Guard teams on the ground at the airport in San Juan. Soldiers told Lather that they were glad to see the supplies had already been sorted and labeled, saving the soldiers time, Lather said.

One soldier offered to let Lather come along as supplies were distributed, but due to the time and the need to stay with the plane, he declined. Besides, he had passengers to find; Operation Airdrop had already made arrangements for refugees to head to the mainland. Lather transported nine individuals back to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

And nine didn’t feel like enough, he said, though the plane was at capacity. “There were people begging,” he said, including those offering to buy seats. “I wish I could have made another run.” The passengers included a woman and her 12-year-old daughter; a college student who hadn’t had class or work in weeks; and a woman who rode out the hurricane, only to see her home destroyed. She brought all of her possessions in a suitcase onto the flight, Lather said.

Operation Airdrop had already ensured all passengers had friends or relatives to stay with on the mainland, he said. The low supplies and general devastation made it easy to understand why they’d want to leave for a few months, Lather said.

“Even the high-rises looked like they were under construction,” he said. Hurricane Maria struck on Sept. 21 as a Category 4 hurricane, knocking out power to most of the island and causing widespread damage. It is expected to take months to get power and other utilities fully restored.

Basta said she couldn’t thank those who responded enough. The deans of the College of Health Sciences and Professions, Russ College of Engineering, and Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, as well as University Advancement, came together to pay for the flight, and did so on short notice. And plenty of volunteers helped package and move the supplies.

“I just think it’s a good lesson; one person really can make a difference. Sometimes you think there’s nothing you can do, and it just comes down to contacting the right people,” Basta said. “It was clear to me that people wanted to help; they just didn’t know how to do it.”

Robert Black, aircraft attendant, fills boxes with donated dried milk for hurricane victims. Community members, businesses and Ohio University faculty, staff and students donated 1,500 pounds of items on Oct. 4, 2017, to be delivered to Puerto Rico.

Aircraft attendant Robert Black fills boxes with donated dried milk for hurricane victims. Community members, businesses and Ohio University faculty, staff and students donated 1,500 pounds of items on Oct. 4, 2017, to be delivered to Puerto Rico on Oct. 5, 2017. Lauren Dickey, College of Health Sciences and Professions

The OHIO College of Health Sciences and Professions’ Department of Social and Public Health chair Tania Basta and SPH administrative specialist Lindsay Radomski loaded carts to transport the donations from the office to Ohio University’s airport.

Donations for Puerto Rico hurricane victims were collected in the office of the College of Health Sciences and Professions’ Department of Social and Public Health (SPH). Department chair Tania Basta and SPH administrative specialist Lindsay Radomski loaded carts to transport the donations from the SPH office to Ohio University’s Airport. Lauren Dickey, College of Health Sciences and Professions

Aircraft attendant Robert Black takes packed and weighed boxes to the aircraft to be loaded onto the plane. Boxes contained a variety of items, including dried milk, baby wipes, feminine items and sports drinks.

Aircraft attendant Robert Black takes packed and weighed boxes to the aircraft to be loaded onto the plane. Boxes contained a variety of items, including dried milk, baby wipes, feminine items and sports drinks. Lauren Dickey, College of Health Sciences and Professions

The College of Health Sciences and Professions, Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine and Russ College of Engineering and Technology came together to fund a relief effort to transport supplies from Athens and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Puerto Rico.

After identifying a need of supplies for hurricane survivors, the College of Health Sciences and Professions, Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine and Russ College of Engineering and Technology came together to fund a relief effort to transport supplies from Athens, Ohio, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Puerto Rico. Lauren Dickey, College of Health Sciences and Professions

The supplies taken from Athens, Ohio, and Florida were taken to Puerto Rico, where they were handed off to National Guard troops for distribution.

The supplies taken from Athens, Ohio, and Florida were taken to Puerto Rico, where they were handed off to National Guard troops for distribution. Nicholas Lather, Ohio University Chief Pilot

The Ohio University plane was filled with supplies Oct. 4, 2017, to be delivered to Puerto Rico the next day.

The Ohio University plane was filled with supplies Oct. 4, 2017, to be delivered to Puerto Rico the next day. Nicholas Lather, Ohio University Chief Pilot

The supplies taken from Athens, Ohio, and Florida were taken to Puerto Rico, where they were handed off to National Guard troops for distribution.

The supplies taken from Athens, Ohio, and Florida were taken to Puerto Rico, where they were handed off to National Guard troops for distribution. Nicholas Lather, Ohio University Chief Pilot

Once donations are placed into boxes, Chief Pilot Nick Lather weighs and calculates the total number of pounds before loading the donations onto the plane.

Once donations are placed into boxes, Chief Pilot Nick Lather weighs and calculates the total number of pounds before loading the donations onto the plane. Lauren Dickey, College of Health Sciences and Professions

Several Ohio University staff members made this event possible including (from left) Lindsay Radomski, Nick Lather, Vicki Smith, Todd McGuire, Kristen Morris, Robert Black, Andrew Rockefeller, and Tania Basta.

Several Ohio University staff members made this event possible, including (from left) Lindsay Radomski, SPH administrative specialist; Nick Lather, chief pilot; Vicki Smith, airport department administrator; Todd McGuire, director of maintenance; Kristen Morris, airport operation intern; Robert Black, aircraft attendant; Andrew Rockefeller, King Air intern; and Dr. Tania Basta, SPH department chair. Lauren Dickey, College of Health Sciences and Professions

Airport staff members Todd McGuire and Robert Black load donations onto Ohio University's airplane. The staff members were diligent in using every space available on the plane, which included putting packages of baby wipes in between seats.

Airport staff members Todd McGuire and Robert Black load donations onto Ohio University’s airplane. The staff members were diligent in using every space available on the plane, which included putting packages of baby wipes in between seats. Lauren Dickey, College of Health Sciences and Professions