Inside a Venice airport hangar, about a dozen volunteers for Agape Flights have run into a problem. They need to load a generator on to a cargo plane but it’s on a forklift and the driver can't quite maneuver around several large pallets of bottled water.
So pilot Jeff Yannucciello jumps in a jeep, hooks it to the front of the 50-foot long aircraft, and pulls it away from the obstacle. With that, the heavy appliance gets loaded along with other supplies - everything from food to medicine to car parts.
Agape Flights has been delivering goods to churches, schools and health clinics in the Bahamas for more than a decade. The island nation is part of its network of Christian missionary partners.
Cargo and mail is also flown on a regular basis to affiliates in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Typically, Agape flies 60-65 mission flights a year. In total, there are approximately 300 mission partners in numerous locations.
Because of its ready-made infrastructure on the ground, the nonprofit was able to quickly shift to disaster relief mode just days after Hurricane Dorian slammed the Bahamas last September.
Allen Speer, the company’s CEO, was a witness to the immediate impact of the category 5 hurricane in one of the hardest hit areas, the town of Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco Island.
It was, he remembers, a scene of total devastation.
"The first time that I went there, the smell was unbelievable,” he said. “The odor was death. It permeated everything."
The Abaco Islands, he says, are beginning to see signs of progress six months after Dorian. In Marsh Harbour, work crews and volunteers are gutting homes, repairing roofs, and clearing streets.
But the storm’s 220-mile an hour wind gusts and 20-foot storm surge will have a long-term impact on recovery efforts. Some areas will likely never be rebuilt.
Especially ravaged were The Mudd and Pigeon Pea, neighborhoods where Haitian immigrants lived in trailers and homes constructed out of flimsy materials. The area has been cleared of debris, but is fenced off. The Bahamian government is not allowing any new construction there.
“These were some of the poorest areas of Marsh Harbour located near the docks,” said Speer. “The first week they recovered 150 bodies, but so many more are missing. Those people mattered, yet they probably will never be accounted for.”
In the weeks following the strongest hurricane to ever make landfall in the Bahamas, donations poured into Agape's hangar in Venice.
A team of volunteers unloaded trucks in the parking lot while others were inside, opening packages and sorting thousands of items. At one point, boxes of diapers almost touched the ceiling.
“We have received brand-new generators, brand-new chainsaws, ladders, tarps, Gatorade, water,” said Speer. “That's the thing that has impacted me the most is to see the amazing generosity of this area.”
Since September, Agape Flights has flown more than 50 relief flights to the Bahamas. In addition to their own aircraft, the organization also leases larger planes in order to transport as much aid as possible.
Even now, Speer says Agape Flights continues to deliver bottled water. Earlier this month, they loaded up two leased cargo flights carrying a total of 15,000 lbs. of relief supplies. The bulk of that was water.
“The water is still a serious problem all over Freeport and especially in Marsh Harbour,” said Speer. “The salt got into the pipes, so they're going to have to replace all those pipes."
In a hint of optimism, electricity is now back on in Freeport and most of the Grand Bahamas. But Darin Martin, Agape Flight’s Director of Missionary Services, notes that much of the Abaco Islands is still in the dark.
“Because the structures in the hard-hit areas were so heavily damaged, the power company and the government are not going to turn on power to structures that haven't been inspected,” he said.
Agape is able to do their relief work in no small part thanks to its cadre of volunteers. Today's church group crew is not just helping load the cargo, they're also helping pay for the fuel to make the trip.
This type of ministry isn't cheap. Besides gas, Agape Flights has to pay for landing fees, insurance and maintenance of the planes. Depending on weight and size of the aircraft, the costs of flying to the recovery areas can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $7,000 per flight.
The nonprofit will need money for the next phase of recovery, flying in teams of skilled people to the Bahamas to help rebuild.
“Not that donated goods aren’t a good thing,” said Martin. “But we are now entering into a time when we can transport people in so they can serve. That’s really a good resource, but for that it takes funding, so I really think rather than some type of donated product right now, we’re really hearing restoration and rebuild.
“We need to get on the ground and do the hands-on, so financial donations are probably the thing that would be most effective and worthwhile now. That way we can fund these trips to fly teams in and out of the Bahamas to do the work they want to do and need to do.”
Martin says that despite the challenges, Agape’s commitment to the Bahamas will continue for as long as it takes, and he's encouraged by small but positive signs of recovery.
“There does seem to be more hope,” he said. “But it's going to be a long time. It's one of those things, you know, maybe they never completely forget.”
Those memories aren’t likely to fade anytime soon. A new hurricane season is just three months away.