Conway Disaster Relief Takes Off, Thanks to Volunteer Pilots
September 24, 2018
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  • Julie Grundahl said pilots want any excuse to fly their airplanes – they’d even fly to get a hamburger if they could.

    When they have a chance to fly their plane for a good cause, though, they will jump at the chance, she said.

    Grundahl, a Mount Pleasant-based Air Force retiree, recently became the chief organizer for a relief effort she has dubbed Palmetto Airdrop.

    Palmetto Airdrop is just one of the volunteer Hurricane Florence disaster relief groups flying supplies to the areas that need those donations the most. One of their 11 destinations in the Carolinas is the Conway-Horry County Airport off of S.C. 378 in Conway.

    The group consists of 42 volunteer pilots from all over the Carolinas, who volunteer their time and aircrafts to help transport supplies – in a much faster fashion than dealing with supply trucks on flooded roads.

    For the past week, Grundahl and her pilots have been working with the Salvation Army, National Guard and other entities to get supplies to those affected by the storm’s aftermath in both North and South Carolina.

    Of the 67 missions Grundahl said the group has flown so far, they average about 14 to 15 missions a day, and six of them last week were specifically into Conway.

    “Think about the things you absolutely have to have – diapers, formula, wipes, cleaning supplies, sanitary hygiene products, batteries, duct tape, tarps – These people are literally wading in two feet of water everywhere they go, some have completely lost their clothes and need clothes, and baby clothes,” Grundahl said. “These kids in the shelters have been there well over a week, the kids need something to do, like games. We try to honor specific requests where we could.”

    When Palmetto Airdrop touches down at the Conway airport, volunteers from the Salvation Army, National Guard, and the community pick up the supplies and take them directly to shelters.

    “The great thing, I thought, was that it got rid of all the congestion and delays in traffic,” said George Osborne, a county airport technician who helped facilitate the supply drops. “The Conway airport is five minutes from the National Guard Armory, and not much more than five minutes from the Emergency Operations Center (EOC).”

    Osborne must wear many hats, as those working at the normally slower-paced Conway airport must also know how to take care of the facility, the customers and help organize any special events. He also served recently as the overnight air operations representative at the EOC during the storm and helped organize the arrival of President Donald Trump to Conway last week.

    “One thing that really impressed me, we had contacted the Horry County Animal Shelter to as if they were in need of anything. We relayed their needs to Julie and within a couple of hours the goods were on the ground. It made me feel good,” Osborne said. “It was nice to be able to reach out with one phone call and have things show up.”

    Palmetto Airdrop isn’t finished, though.

    “Obviously there is still a pretty big need. We aren’t just going to stop. Donations are still coming in,” Grundahl said.

    Grundahl said that being able to help people in such an immediate fashion is really gratifying.

    “Obviously I worked in the Air Force, a government entity. To be able to do this at a not-for-profit level … without being hindered by any bureaucracy … is really enlightening and personally satisfying,” Grundahl said.

    FEMA and The Red Cross are not able to get some areas as quickly as others, she said.

    “We want to make sure we aren’t leaving those folks high and dry. It seems like we are that source (for them),” Grundahl said. “(Some smaller towns) … they are completely devastated, with no stores to purchase goods at …”

    Pilot Doug Decker of Georgetown said he isn’t done helping yet, either.

    “This is not a short term thing. I’d like to say its over, but it’s not over. The water has not receded yet,” Decker said.

    A general aviation pilot with 50 years under his belt, including a Wright Brothers Safe Pilot Award, Decker uses his A36 Beachcraft Bonanza to help transport supplies to both South Carolina and North Carolina areas.

    “A lot of people look at little planes and think of little bugs that bother people, but think of the importance in emergency situations that these planes provide us,” Decker said. “The stationary aspect of this weather really exacerbated things.”

    Decker’s own property along the Waccamaw River in Georgetown is in danger, with flood waters that devastated parts of Conway flowing in his direction.

    “The situation as I see it is that even people in N.C. – their relief is still as critical, too,” Decker said.

    Decker was contacted by some air traffic control acquaintances, who got him in touch with Grundahl. He mobilized a number of pilots he has on a database and they got down to business.

    Donald Godwin of Southern Asphalt was one of the local citizens in Decker’s database, and Godwin happily offered up the use of his aircraft, a Citation CJ2, for transporting supplies.

    “Certainly there are a lot of people in need. They are desperate and destitute, and they just need some help,” Godwin said. “I’ve been real fortunate in my business and in life, so why not give back? I’ve got my pilot on standby and if we need to go, we’ll do whatever we can.”

    Decker said they haven’t had to use Godwin’s plane yet, but said local pilots simply providing that asset are really making a big contribution.

    “What people have to realize is that we need to keep this effort going and need to have people still making donations,” Decker said.

    Decker commended Grundahl on her efforts in organizing Palmetto Airdrop.

    “She is a lady with a mission,” Decker said. “She has done a phenomenal job.”

    Grundahl said they are now working closely with a grassroots group called Fighting Flo in the Lowcountry, with more than 80 donation dropoff locations in the Charleston area. Supplies donated there will go towards helping N.C. and S.C. residents dealing with Florence aftermath to get the supplies they need.

    Local donations are still highly encouraged, as the rivers have yet to recede and many families have lost everything.

    According to Horry County officials, the following businesses in Horry County are accepting donations of non-perishable food and toiletries:

    Fun Warehouse in Myrtle Beach

    Lowe’s Foods (all Horry County locations)

    Ledo’s Pizza in North Myrtle Beach

    Chick-Fil-A in Carolina Forest