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Flotilla to leave Fort Myers to aid relief effort on Gulf Coast

Friday, September 16, 2005

The images kept Gary Burris up at night. The pictures of the small fishing towns along the Louisiana border, the ruins left in Hurricane Katrina’s wake.

Relief organizations haven’t been able to reach the lower parts of Louisiana, said Burris, an environmentalist and documentary filmmaker, because roads have been wiped out by massive flooding

“I just woke up in the middle of the night and said I got to do something,” Burris said. “We have to look after those people in the bayous.”

It was clear the kind of help he wanted to send couldn’t travel by land. The aid would have to be sent by water and the shrimp boats docked at Fort Myers Beach would make the perfect vessels to send aid into the Louisiana’s lower regions.

“It’s just fishermen helping fishermen,” Burris said.

Within 10 days local fisherman had volunteered their shrimp boats and donations began to pile up. Burris made contacts in Louisiana to bring supplies into small towns along the Mississippi River, places where relief organizations couldn’t get to.

Thursday evening volunteers loaded a flotilla with diapers, boxes of food, bottles of water, and clothing as three boats were prepared to push off from Fort Myers Beach this morning and begin a seven-day journey to some of the worst-hit areas.

Donors brought food and clothing throughout the afternoon to the parking lot of the Leisure Lady Casino Boat, where volunteers were collecting donations and carrying them to the boats docked nearby.

Tom and Nicole Nagel of Bonita Springs said they felt better knowing the toothpaste, deodorant, and baby supplies they brought to the dock would be going straight to some of the hardest hit areas.

“We’re certainly sensitive to hurricanes living here,” said Tom Nagel, 32. “With local boats going over there, we just thought it was a good idea.”

The flotilla will be made up of two shrimp boats, led by a 100-foot research boat. The two boats were donated by Dennis Henderson, owner of the Trico Shrimp Co., who said they haven’t left the Fort Myers dock in two weeks because of skyrocketing gas prices.

The research boat is owned by Greg Brooks, a commercial navigator from Maine. Brooks will guide two shrimp boats into waters off the Louisiana coast, places where few boats have been since Hurricane Katrina.

“It’s going to be dangerous. The hurricane changed the scenery,” Brooks said. “We’ve found out there’s tons of debris rolling down the Mississippi. We don’t know what we’re going to run into.”

Brooks will rely on the 30-year-old boat’s sonar detectors to steer the boats away from sharp objects below the water’s surface, such as ships that were sunk during the storm.

“We don’t have the red tape, we’re just going sail in there and make drop-offs at the towns we know stuff isn’t getting to,” Brooks said. “We’ll do whatever we can.”

Ohio farmers have donated $20,000 worth of biodiesel fuel for the 35-hour trip.

The boats will be carrying thousands of pounds of food and water. During the past 10 days donations have poured in from local churches, the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and Harry Chapin Food Bank in Fort Myers.

Gary VanVolkom, 49, was among the volunteers who spent the afternoon helping load the vessels. VanVolkom, a shrimper, has been out of work for two months and his shirt gray T-shirt was soaked in sweat as he carried diapers, water, and food onto a 75-foot shrimp boat called “Equalizer.”

“They’re in a worse position than I am,” VanVolkom said of the victims of Hurricane Katrina. “I can get by. I know they’re hurting and I ain’t hurting.”

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