It wasn’t Dylan Leoni’s first time flying supplies out to stranded residents because of a hurricane.
Leoni was 19 years old when he first volunteered to fly into LaBelle, Florida, to bring supplies to those affected by Hurricane Irma with Operation Airdrop, a nonprofit aviation charity based out of Texas that aids with hurricane relief.
On Saturday, he volunteered again. This time, he flew to help those affected by Hurricane Michael.
It was rewarding for Leoni, a now 20-year-old Florida State University exercise physiology junior, to go into the stranded town of LaBelle and hand out supplies to local residents.
For this reason, Leoni felt the pull to help people in Apalachicola, Florida.
“It was really rewarding to do that and see their reaction,” Leoni said.
On Saturday and Sunday, Operation Airdrop delivered about 27,000 pounds of essential supplies such as nonperishable foods, water, batteries, bug sprays, diapers and toothpaste with more than 50 private planes from the University Air Center, at 4701 NE 40th Terrace, said Trey Thriffiley, a board member of Operation Airdrop.
The nonprofit is still asking for many of those supplies to be donated. Supplies can be taken to the General Aviation Entrance of the Gainesville Regional Airport on Waldo Road. Operation Airdrop will be operating out of the former Silver Airways Hangar, located at 4505 NE 40th Terrace.
The goal of the operation was to help those who couldn’t receive supplies because of blocked roads from the effects of Michael, Thriffiley said.
Operation Airdrop started in 2017 when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, said Ethan Garrity, a board member and vice president of government relations for Operation Airdrop. Since then, the charity has helped with three other hurricanes, including Irma, Maria and Florence. In more than five days, the aviation charity sent out 286,000 pounds of supplies in more than 500 trips during Hurricane Florence.
There’s no financial incentive for pilots, Garrity said.
“It helps to justify and validate aviation and why it’s so important,” Garrity said.
Pilots delivered supplies to devastated Florida cities, Thriffiley said. Some of these cities included Apalachicola, Port St. Joe, Blountstown, Bristol, Tallahassee and Panama City, Thriffiley said. The operation will continue until Tuesday night.
In these cities, two out of every three trees are knocked over or snapped in half, and buildings are in ruins, he said.
“There’s people who haven’t seen a FEMA truck,” Thriffiley said. “They’re out in the woods in North Florida and people are realizing, still today, that they need everything.”
One of the larger donations on Saturday was delivered by John Vogelsang, a retired air traffic controller, who brought around $1,500 worth of supplies on behalf of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
As someone who used to live in Pensacola, Florida, Vogelsang thought it was necessary to give back to the community.
“I’ve been through my share of hurricanes, and I know how terrible it can be,” Vogelsang said.
Instead of feeling helpless, Marcia Hodik, an employee in the UF department of neurosurgery and a volunteer at Operation Airdrop, said she enjoyed knowing she could assist in the cause.
“These people are only 200 miles away from us,” Hodik said. “They’re our neighbors, it could have been us. That storm could have easily taken a turn.”
Operation Airdrop needs more monetary donations and supplies, Hodik said.
“We need the Gator Nation to step up because we were spared,” Hodik said. “We know what it’s like to be stuck in the middle of a hurricane.”
She said she hopes UF and Alachua County will rise to the occation to assist nearby Florida cities in any way they can.
“We’re Gainesville,” she said. “We’re strong; we’re not affected, so let’s help.”
Pilot Mark Creighton, of Port Aransas, Texas, loads nonperishable food onto a plane headed to Appalachia, Florida, for Operation Airdrop. His home flooded during Hurricane Harvey, and he’s helped other victims of hurricanes through Operation Airdrop since.