Orlando lawyer comes to the aid of Bahamians
Guy Haggard, a veteran pilot and attorney who is board certified in aviation law, spent a sleepless night September 1.
Some 350 miles south of his Orlando home, Hurricane Dorian was blasting the Bahamas with 180 mph-plus winds and threatening the lives of islanders Haggard has known for more than 30 years.
“Right when it went through, we tried to get in touch with them, and you just couldn’t, everything went out,” said Haggard, a GrayRobinson shareholder. “I lost a lot of sleep. I felt so helpless.”
Also unknown was the fate of a vacation home Haggard co-owned on Green Turtle Cay. He has since learned it no longer exists.
An Eagle Scout who learned the value of service at an early age, and an instrument flight rated pilot with easy access to the sky, Haggard didn’t waste time mounting a rescue that eventually helped relocate a handful of victims.
Haggard said the project began with his attorney son, Drew, who works in the firm’s Ft. Lauderdale office, marshalling donations.
“Within 24 hours, Drew collected a lot of goods, water, diapers, toiletries, non-perishable foods, tarps, MREs (Meals Ready to Eat,)” Haggard said. “He organized it and then I jumped in the plane and flew down.”
The first flight, from Orlando to Ft. Lauderdale to pick up supplies, and then to Treasure Cay and back, was September 6.
Haggard flew a Cirrus Vision Jet SF-50, an elfin four-seater with a butterfly tail that he co-owns.
“It’s billed as the smallest jet,” he said. “You’d be surprised how much stuff you can get in it.”
The weather was clear, but the main airport at Marsh Harbor was under two feet of water, forcing Haggard and scores of other private planes to land on an uncontrolled strip on Treasure Cay.
As they made their final approach, pilots had to stay on their toes and keep in close radio contact with each other, Haggard said.
“The U.S. Navy put a big AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) plane up there at 20,000 feet, circling, so they could keep radar coverage on everybody coming in,” Haggard said.
Haggard was one of the first pilots to receive an entry permit from the Bahamian government after the storm, and he credits the government with responding quickly.
The need was evident when Haggard first landed. The scene reminded him of the historic footage of the fall of Saigon, when desperate South Vietnamese refugees fought to board helicopters on the roof of the American embassy.
“The first time I taxied and I looked down the taxiway, I said, ‘Oh My God, there were thousands of people on the ramp,’” Haggard said. “They were obviously wearing the same clothes that they had been wearing for the past four or five days. As soon as you shut down, they would come up to you – ‘Please take me out, here’s my baby.’”
Haggard managed three flights over two days, September 6 and September 8. He estimates that he never stayed on the ground for more than 30 minutes, long enough to unload supplies and take on a few passengers.
U.S. Customs warned Haggard that he could only bring back storm victims who held a valid U.S. passport, or a valid Bahamian passport with a U.S. visa. Haggard said it was easy to find storm victims with the proper credentials. He rescued five.
The most memorable was a hotel bartender and his physician wife and their eight-year-old daughter. The couple told Haggard they made the 20-mile trek to the air strip in a storm-battered family car that had lost all of its windows, including the windshield.
“They said they rode the storm out in Marsh Harbor in their house and that it was the most terrifying experience they ever had,” Haggard said. “They said pieces of the house were coming off as they were hiding in the bathroom and somehow, their house held together.”
When Haggard learned that it was the little girl’s birthday, he treated the family to dinner at a Chili’s Restaurant.
“We asked her where she wanted to go, and she said, ‘McDonald’s’,” Haggard laughed. “They don’t have McDonald’s on the island. She was taking the whole thing amazingly well.”
Helping even a few storm victims was rewarding, and it put the loss of a vacation home in perspective, Haggard said.
“Have you ever heard that parable about the 10,000 starfish on the beach, and the little girl throwing one back in the water, and the old man comes by and says you can’t possibly save them all, and the girl says, well, I can at least help this one,” Haggard said. “That’s what it was like.”