CEOs Rally To Help Bahamas After Hurricane Dorian
On 2 September 2019, Hurricane Dorian struck the Abaco Islands, Grand Bahama and surrounding cays in the northern section of the Bahamas. It was the most powerful hurricane on record to strike the area and the worst natural disaster in the country’s history. Four YPO members with unique resources, unparalleled determination and enlivened passions, joined the relief efforts. These are their stories of leadership in action.
CEO leadership in action
Josh Brant, CEO of fintech company Allegiance Merchant Services, fell in love with the Bahamas on a fly fishing retreat to Sandy Point, a small fishing village an hour and a half drive from Marsh Harbor, is the commercial center of the Abacos and was decimated by Dorian.
“Having lived through hurricanes living on the Gulf Coast, I was worried about their community,” says Brant. It took Brant several attempts before reaching his friends on the island, and they told him many friends and family members were missing.
Brant immediately reached out to various NGOs to see how he could reach the island with supplies. His plan was to find a 50-foot fishing boat, load it up and sail it to Sandy Point. He was told repeatedly it was impossible.
“I felt helpless,” says Brant.
Then, 10 days after the hurricane touched down, Brant was offered the use of a private, 350-foot yacht.
“The caveat was that there be an executive, a.k.a. me, onboard running things,” says Brant who had no experience with relief aid or operating a yacht. “But this was an opportunity to make a huge impact and I couldn’t say no.”
Except for one thing: Brant and his wife, Abby, were in the middle of the in vitro fertilization (IVF) process, and the Bahamas has a history of Zika, a virus that can cause birth defects.
“We have been trying to have a baby for a long time and this year, at a critical stage in the process, we found out Abby had breast cancer,” says Brant. Shortly before the hurricane, Brant and his wife were told they could start a meticulously monitored IVF process again.
But by this time, he had raised most of the money for the journey, had underwritten the deal and couldn’t imagine not coming to his friends’ aid. He planned to go despite the risk. The night before he was to leave for Miami to start his journey, he learned the boat would not be available for a few more days. During that weeklong delay, Brant was able to convince the yacht’s owner to let him monitor the mission remotely. The following week, a crew of 37 people unloaded USD220,000 in supplies and 5,000 gallons in fuel to Sandy Point.
“My goal now is to get as much exposure about how big the problem is and continues to be, plus make sure the help continues,” Brant says. “There are still people living on the small islands that no one even knows about and they need help.”
Leadership lessons ‘learned on the battlefield’
Rob Ceravolo, a former Navy fighter pilot and CEO of Tropic Ocean Airways, is no stranger to dangerous situations. But it wasn’t until Dorian hit that he and his friend Mike Oberhelman, a retired Navy SEAL and partner in Blue Tide Marine, leveraged their unique backgrounds to deliver relief.
“One of the problems when disasters hit is that civilians start scrambling, multiple NGOs and the Red Cross want to help, but nobody knows what to do,” explains Ceravolo. “We wanted to create a completely self-reliant, short-term, first responder product that doesn’t require the government for money or transportation.”
The day after the hurricane hit and swirls of disingenuous media narratives told of guns, looting and violence on the island, Ceravolo and his team flew into the area. They dropped teams of people with satellite phones, boats, dirt bikes, ATVs and seaplanes to get into the out-of-the-way areas, creating a communication network to get the real information out into the world and relay what was needed on the ground. It turned out that there were no guns, looting or violence and what was needed was an evacuation effort.
“The first day we were mainly flying people back to the United States,” says Ceravolo. “Since the majority of people were Bahamian, and some were undocumented, we started bringing people to Nassau and North Eleuthera instead. In the end, over the course of nine days with the help of Delta Airlines, we evacuated approximately 900 people and carried over 200,000 pounds of aid and supplies.”
Currently, Ceravolo and Oberhelman are collaborating with Global Empowerment Mission to start rebuilding the smaller, lesser-known communities while continuing to build out a plan for the next time disaster hits.
“With our unique backgrounds, we can leverage the skills we learned on the battlefield,” says Ceravolo. “The most important thing to do within the first 24 hours of a disaster is set up a communication network so the government knows what’s actually happening and can help direct the various NGOs and organizations to help. We can run reconnaissance flights and take pictures and videos to send back. We can put up tethered drones that emit LTE signals in places where cell towers are down and parachute in supplies. I hope there’s not another disaster any time soon, but if there is, we want to be ready for it and be able to create a distribution network to help.”
Resolving to relief indefinitely
Within 24 hours of hearing Hurricane Dorian had hit the Bahamas, Aaron Parkinson, Managing Partner of Xtreme Action Park in Florida, partnered with an organization called Mission Resolve Foundation and several of the core entrepreneurs in the South Florida area, including Resolve Marine Group — a company that rescues ships and their crews and Gold Aviation — a private aircraft charter.
“Many of us had never been involved in relief efforts before,” says Parkinson. “It was just people with great intentions and big hearts wanting to help.”
Together, the team loaded the 2,000-person Grand Celebration cruise ship, donated by Bahamas Paradise Cruise Lines, with 300,000 pounds of supplies and 400 relief volunteers including members of the media, and set sail three days after the storm.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” recalls Parkinson. “We didn’t know if there were still any docks, if there would be forklifts to unload supplies, whether there would be electricity or how we were going to distribute everything. When we landed in Freeport, which didn’t really get that damaged, it looked lovely. And then we saw the lines of Bahamians who hadn’t eaten or had fresh water for days.”
After docking, the factions on the boat, assembled themselves by expertise and dispersed to the areas where they were needed most: the doctors went to the hospitals; the West Palm Beach Fire Department went to the fire department; and Mission Resolve packed their buses with members of the media and started to travel and report. Upon their return, Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line evacuated approximately 1,300 people who were legally documented and brought them to safety in Florida.
“Based on everything we learned on that first run, we knew they needed a lot more help,” says Parkinson. “A week later we assembled the ship again after raising the USD600,000 it cost and went back, this time with 1.1 million pounds of supplies.”
Subsequent runs on the ship, which continue, include paying customers — usually friends and relatives of those on the island, which helps offset the cost of the cruise line — as well as paid relief volunteers. Parkinson and a handful of others have also engaged their children.
“I took my two daughters, who are 13 and 14 years old, out of school,” says Parkinson. “They watched how the media worked and created their own briefing room and brought the message back to school where they’ve been raising money. The question now is, how can YPO keep helping? How can we bridge across organizations to make a difference and continue our efforts?”
Family, music festivals and voluntourism
When Mark Moore, Managing Partner at workforce solutions firm Kavaliro, asked his YPO forum mates to sponsor an aircraft and to send aid to those affected by Hurricane Dorian, everyone joined in to help. But then Matt Wideman, Managing Partner at Susquehanna Holdings Company, asked what more he could do.
“Mark asked if I could get my hands on a Black Hawk helicopter and I said unlikely, but I’ll try,” Wideman recalls. Three days later, they were operating a Blackhawk out of Stuart Jet Center with a second on the way. “The Abacos are very spread out, with different cays and only one road in and out. When ports, bridges and related infrastructure go down, there’s no way to get to hundreds and thousands of people except by helicopter.”
Wideman reached out to a family that owns a helicopter company in Florida, which specializes in fire suppression globally. A few hours later, together with his brother Nick, he was on his way to Stuart to begin operating the Black Hawks as well as a Kodiak cargo plane. With coordination help from Stuart Sailfish Club, Mastroianni Family Foundation, reality TV Dugger and Bates families and the Cleveland Clinic, the group moved over 180 tons of food, water, medicine and other critical supplies into areas that needed it most.
“Nathan and Lawson Bates with Medic Corp, who coordinated most of the Blackhawk daily supply movements out of Marsh Harbour airport, would fly in the day before to see what supplies and medical resources were needed,” says Wideman, who himself had no experience in humanitarian aid or disaster relief.
“Medic Corp would fly in with Clevland Clinic, triage the community and prioritize movement of medicine and medical evacs. We would then task the helo on that priority and add additional supplies to the payload depending on the additional food, water, fuel, generators and other supply needs. After the bird emptied the cargo, we would then load up with evacuees carrying a dozen or more at a time back to Marsh Harbour.”
They would prioritize first those who needed medical attention, the pregnant women and families with young children.
Cleveland Clinic was led by Dr. Mike Ferraro who would call the clinic in U.S., get packaged together the necessary medicine, transport them at night to Stuart Jet Center, where they would fly on the Blackhawks the following morning to be distributed where needed. In total, Wideman and his coalition of bootstrapped partners served thousands of people in about 15 disconnected communities with food, water, medicine and provided a means to those who were injured or needed to evacuate, a means to get out.”
After days of witnessing the vast number of Bahamians who were without shelter, Wideman called his friend Adi McAbian, senior executive of Insomniac, the largest musical festival producer in the world. “I called him from the tarmac thinking he could put me in touch with the manufacturer of the tents they use. He picked up in the middle of a concert, I told him what we were doing.”
In less than an hour, McAbian loaded up more than USD1 million worth of pods the following day, donating two truckloads of sustainable housing for more than 5,000 people.
“I was blown away. Never have I seen a private company move so quickly to give away a million dollars. Just unbelievable the size of their heart.”
Initially, Wideman and his brother thought they were getting involved in helping in the Bahamas for three days. “And now almost two months later, we’re still operating and we plan to be helping there for the foreseeable future.”
Disrupting the humanitarian aid industry
Like his YPO peers, Wideman realizes that longer-term sustainable relief has to become part of any aid relief program. To help, he has created the Love & Life Foundation, which he envisions creating a way to bring humanitarian aid anywhere in the world when needed.
“Our plan is to take a militaristic approach and military machinery to disaster relief in those initial weeks and follow that up with love and life,” Wideman explains. “That includes rebuilding efforts, social impact donations, bringing artists and musicians to affected areas in order to help release tension and stress.
Wideman is applying a start-up mentality, CEO leadership lessons and private sector principles to disaster relief. “When I look at businesses to invest in, we look for high-margin industries, inefficiencies in the existing business model and identify where we can create competitive advantages. In disaster and humanitarian relief, we see all those things. Waste, fraud, slow and inefficient decision making.”
He explains that only in disaster and humanitarian aid industry can a 32-year-old real estate guy from Orlando, with no industry experience and no resources, bootstrap an organization and outperform, outpace the largest traditional players. “Our focus is to be more impactful with less funds.”
Wideman, having found his new calling in life, has made a commitment to never take a salary. “I see this all the time in the private sector, misaligned interests. In my business, when I see people using other people’s money, with no skin in the game themselves, their objectives aren’t to find good deals, but to just do deals. It’s the same in this industry, those that have resources just want to spend and push them out for the headlines, without really understanding what’s needed on the ground. The obvious result of that is money spent on things that aren’t needed, people or equipment sitting there unused, because its only there for a purpose written in a grant. That means they can only use it for the purpose outlined in the grant, which are typically the needs of yesterday. “We just can’t let that happen anymore.”
For now, Wideman and his team are focused on voluntourism — a popular form of travel that combines volunteering and tourism — as a means of helping to rebuild the Bahamas.
“We will provide shelter, food and transportation on the island to anyone willing to serve and help rebuild as part of their next vacation,” says Wideman.
Each of these YPO leaders has their own personal story, their own professional talents, CEO leadership lessons and their own network of connections. What unites them is a desire to work together with organizations and governments to act as forces for good.