When Category 5 winds from Hurricane Irma shredded St. Thomas’ only hospital Wednesday, Sept. 6, Atlanta accounting firm Aprio was launched into action that carried through weeks of drama packed, like a Shakespeare play, with many characters, much heroism and a touch of coincidence.
The day after Irma ravaged Schneider Regional Medical Center in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, Jewish accounting manager Julie Reader of Aprio (the former Habif, Arogeti & Wynne) reached a client who’s an orthopedic surgeon on St. Thomas and was in dire need of materials to create a makeshift surgical site — along with such basic human needs as water and generators.
While Reader set out to collect supplies, colleague Susan O’Dwyer began planning a delivery. O’Dwyer’s experience with humanitarian logistics stems from providing relief to Tuscaloosa, Ala., after her son lived through a tornado that hit April 2011.
She emailed everyone on her contact list, looking for a pilot and a plane. Within 35 minutes Angel Flight Soars, a volunteer pilot program based at DeKalb Peachtree Airport, arranged for Bob Brown to make room on his flight to St. Thomas.
“I kept telling pilot Brown, ‘I love you. This is amazing.’ And he responded, ‘Hey, if you want something done, ask a Jew to do it,’ ” O’Dwyer said.
At 9:30 a.m. Friday, Sept. 8, Brown left for St. Thomas.
Aprio staff continued collecting supplies and innovating ways to deliver them to St. Thomas.
Conference rooms were overflowing with critical supplies.
“If there are 100,000 people, what we sent was only a drop in the bucket,” O’Dwyer said about the Virgin Islands.
The local work has continued along with the ongoing recovery from Irma and the additional needs created by Hurricane Maria, which cut through the Virgin Islands and slammed Puerto Rico two weeks after Irma. Aprio’s efforts have run in parallel to other work in Jewish Atlanta to respond to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
A swirl of activity and people came together just to aid the Caribbean:
- Sally Mundell of The Packaged Good worked with Spanx to provide 1,000 toiletry kits of shampoo, conditioner, toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and aspirin.
- O’Dwyer’s doctor friend donated glucometers for people with diabetes.
- Aprio sales manager Stephanie Oliver collected blankets and first-aid kits for 30 children from her church youth group.
- Reader picked up 200 pounds of medical gloves from MedShare headquarters in Decatur.
- Robert Melnick, Aprio’s Jewish managing director and a master tactician, took inventory and packed supplies.
- A donor gave $5,000 to High Tech Ministries for supplies. O’Dwyer and her husband used that money to buy tarps, brooms, mops and cleaning supplies.
“I’m not sure how the word kept getting out,” she said. “In this era of divisiveness this has been divineness.”
Conference rooms were overflowing from generous donors. O’Dwyer, planning to use a commercial airline for delivery, learned that jets could not land on St. Thomas because of a lack of fuel and a curfew.
Enter Ben Federman, brother of Chabad Rabbi Asher Federman on St. Thomas and a Miami evacuee. A private equity investor, Federman arranged transport from Miami to St. Thomas. His knowledge of shipping lines, custom form, and palletizing solved O’Dwyer’s problem.
“People on Facebook were posting that drivers are needed to get materials to Miami. Aprio paid for a 20-foot U-Haul. It was packed so well, you couldn’t have slid a single piece of paper in there,” O’Dwyer said.
Chabad of Georgia congregant Aaron Holder, who drove a similarly packed truck to Harvey victims in Texas early in September, recruited Life University classmates to drive the to Miami. Sandra Jean and Brett Anderson left Tuesday, Sept. 26, with toiletry kits, tarps, mops, buckets, brooms, other cleaning supplies, diapers, baby wipes, cases of food, glucometers, and 400 pounds of medical gloves.
Eight pallets, each 6 feet tall and nearly 100 pounds, were wrapped and ready to be loaded onto a Tropical Shipping container ship.
At the port, Jean and Anderson called O’Dwyer in a panic: The truck was stuck in a line half a mile from the ship. But Jean tracked down the harbor master, and working in the office were two St. Thomas natives, who push the truck to the front of the line.
After some delays, the ship was due to depart Wednesday, Oct. 4.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency also turned to Aprio for help.
O’Dwyer got a call from FEMA one afternoon, telling her that her name had come up in some discussions and asking for help to transport 185 satellite phones to St. Thomas.
FEMA insisted the phones needed to arrive by airplane. O’Dwyer and Doug Ross, who heads the Birthright Israel Foundation’s Atlanta board and serves on the national board, worked with Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale to get the phones on a plane to the islands.
“That is the Aprio way,” O’Dwyer said. “We are all-in because people’s lives are at stake. We are here to serve. Whatever people need, Aprio brings it.”
Supplies and money from Aprio employees, Jewish community members, and O’Dwyer’s church, Birmingham Methodist in Alpharetta, are still pouring in, and she keeps looking for transportation to St. Thomas.
“We haven’t even gotten to the cement, the 2-by-4s, the drywall. The logistics are staggering,” she said. “When FEMA calls, I know it’s critical. I cannot fathom how they’ll rebuild. …
“As long as our doctor needs help and I have breath in this body, I’ll do everything I can, and I’m proud to work for a company that has supported this effort in every way.”