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Floridians help get supplies to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico 'the Miami way'

Glenn Garvin, Miami Herald on

Published in Weather News

Kevin Diemar, president of the Miami-based Unity Jets charter company, had one of those moments. In the first days after the hurricane, when almost no commercial flights were able to leave San Juan, Diemar's company was doing a brisk business ferrying well-to-do customers off the island.

"We were bringing people out, but the flights going down there were empty," Diemar said. "And then I suddenly thought, 'Hey, why don't we load the Puerto Rico-bound flights with supplies?'" Since then, each of his Lear Jet 45s headed to Puerto Rico has carried between 1,200 and 1,600 pounds of water, baby food and other supplies, which he hands over to relief organizations operating on the ground.

Diemar's story illustrates that mainland Americans are overflowing with generosity for Puerto Rico: All Diemar has to do to fill his planes with supplies is to announce on Facebook that he's got a flight headed to the island, and the donations start piling up.

"Everybody wants to help," Diemar said. "I could easily get enough donations to fill several flights a day if we were making them."

Puerto Rico's smaller airports are the key to private relief efforts. Less busy, they're easier to book a small plane into, and offer quicker unloading. Getting permission to unload on the airport tarmac can take up to six hours, which greatly complicates the entire process when arrivals and departures can be made only during daylight hours.

The 18 smaller airports are also scattered across the island, which means the supplies don't stack up in San Juan, awaiting scarce transport to Puerto Rico's interior.

"One of the biggest problems in all this is the difficulty in moving supplies around Puerto Rico once you get them there," said celebrity chef Ingrid Hoffman, who with an informal network of friends has managed to get about 20 relief flights to the island.

"It's a combination of roads being washed out or blocked, and trucks being destroyed," she said. "Maybe you were a company with 20 trucks before the hurricane. But some of them were destroyed by the storm, and some of your drivers' homes were destroyed and they've moved someplace else, and you don't know where because all the phones are out and communications have been reduced to people walking around with messages for each other."

And, she added quietly, there's another possibility: "Maybe some of them are dead."

Bypassing San Juan and delivering supplies directly to mayors or private groups like the Red Cross out in the countryside also keeps the supplied from getting snagged in governmental regulations and arguments over who gets credit for the help.

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