In Bahamas, Delta flight crew transports evacuees from devastation

Bahamian father can only watch as 5-year-old son swept away by storm surge

The passengers boarding the plane at Marsh Harbour in the Bahamas were shell-shocked after surviving Hurricane Dorian, recalls the Delta Air Lines relief flight crew.

The adults wore "vacant expressions," said Capt. Carl Nordin, a chief line check pilot who normally works at the airline's Atlanta headquarters but volunteered to fly a plane stocked with supplies to Marsh Harbour and transport evacuees to Nassau.

“They were in shock” and were exhausted, said Christi Jackson, a flight attendant manager who worked the cabin. “The adults were, like, in a daze.”

Delta operated relief flights throughout this week, transporting 50,000 pounds of relief supplies and more than 360 evacuees.

“It’s one thing to read about this and see it on the news and read about evacuees,” said pilot Erica Jefcoat, who served as first officer. “It’s a whole other thing to stand right in front of somebody and they’ve got everything they own, and they’ve got their children with them.”

“They’re telling you about lost loved ones or people they don’t know about,” Jefcoat said. “Some of them didn’t even know where we were taking them and what’s going to happen when we get there.”

Some of the children were too young to understand the traumatic experience of living through the storm, "but the older ones, they did," Jackson said.

After boarding the plane, the passengers asked for water and more air conditioning, Jackson said. Crew members handed out water and snack boxes and turned the A/C on high.

For Nordin, the effort to make the relief flights happen started Friday night when he got an email from Delta’s senior vice president of flight operations, Jim Graham, saying the airline planned to start relief flights to the Bahamas on Sunday.

“We were very concerned about the condition of Marsh Harbour,” including the runway, security and the airport infrastructure, Nordin said. Because of the state of the infrastructure and limited resources, there were no airstairs or other equipment to offload passengers, so Delta had to fly down a plane with built-in stairs like the MD-88, which has tail cone airstairs that can extend out the rear of the plane.

Nordin was also concerned about security on the airfield, wondering, “Were there thousands of people, desperate people, waiting for a ride?”

But after seeing images on television of the destruction in the Bahamas from Dorian, he decided he had to go. “Those people were in despair,” Nordin said.

Delta has operated flights before to Marsh Harbour in the Abaco Islands. But after the hurricane, the airport closed to commercial flights because of infrastructure damage.

Last Saturday, Jefcoat was working at Delta’s operation center at its headquarters next to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport when she e-mailed Nordin and asked whether he needed any help on the relief flights to Marsh Harbour. He suggested she serve as co-pilot. The first flight departed that evening.

Jefcoat said she “stormed through town and up to the Northside to pack,” calling her husband and nanny to make arrangements for her 3-year-old and 6-year-old. “I think my husband thought I had lost my mind.”

Her father and husband, both pilots, had some real concerns, asking her what she knew about airport security in the Bahamas. Not a whole lot, she replied.

But Jefcoat trusted that the advance work the airline was doing would ensure the mission’s success. The relief plan “felt like it was the right thing to do,” she said.

Jackson was at the hair salon Saturday at 1 p.m. when she got a call from a Delta managing director about the relief flight leaving at 7 p.m.

Then she got a call at 2 p.m., notifying her she would need to sign in for the flight at 5 p.m.

“I just kind of had that adrenaline flowing,” said Jackson, who has volunteered for humanitarian flights to Houston, St. Maarten, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, after hurricanes in 2017, and to New York after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

“I told the stylist, ‘Could you hurry up? I’m gonna need more hair spray,’” Jackson said.

When the stylist asked where Jackson was going, she said, “I’m going to the Bahamas. … I know it’s going to be hot, and I know we’re going to be somewhere where there’s no air conditioning. So I need for you to hook me up.”

Jackson, who has offered peer support to other flight attendants through a Delta program and is also an ordained minister, said she is accustomed to helping people going through trauma. She made sure some diapers and baby food in the supplies to be loaded into the cargo bin were instead brought into the cabin for evacuees traveling with babies.

Delta brought employees from security, customer service and other departments to handle passengers on the ground, and the National Emergency Management Agency in the Bahamas designated evacuees to be transported, making for a relatively orderly boarding process.

In the airplane cabin with evacuees, Jackson sang and danced with the children, who got toys and candy brought by an aircraft mechanic.

But for the parents and other adults leaving their homes behind for Nassau, it was a flight into an uncertain future.

“How do you start over?” Nordin said.

One passenger on the flight told Jackson, “You don’t understand, this is all I know. … This is all I’ve ever known. Everything I have.”

Jackson said the man told her, “We don’t have a whole lot of money. We got a house. … If I leave that, what’s going to happen to it?”

As for those who lost loved ones, they “might not ever find that person that passed away during the hurricane,” Jackson said. “How are you going to deal with that grief?”

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