Vero’s effort to provide hurricane relief to Bahamas continues to grow

Local attorney and avid fisherman Brian Connelly isn’t surprised by the generous and caring way Vero Beach has responded to the humanitarian crisis in the Bahamas – especially the Abaco Islands, particularly Grand Cay – in the wake of Hurricane Dorian.

“Not at all,” Connelly said. “Grand Cay isn’t a resort area where you see a lot of crowds. It’s a fishing village. I’ve been going there for 15 years, and we go because it’s some of the best fishing and diving in the islands. But because it’s so small, you get to know the people there.

“That’s the case for most of us who go there on a regular basis,” he added. “Over the years, we’ve developed friendships with some wonderful people there. I have the phone numbers of a half-dozen of them, and we’ll call before we come over to ask if they need anything.

“Even in good times, they don’t have a lot, so there’s always a need.”

Grand Cay, affectionately known as “Little Grand,” is at the far northern end of the Abaco Islands, but it didn’t escape Dorian’s devastation – the destruction of homes, businesses, the power grid and water system.

According to fishing enthusiasts here who frequent the island, Grand Cay’s residents have received little assistance from the Bahamian or British governments since the storm hit.

Instead, they’ve relied on friends from Vero Beach and other Florida east coast communities who have rushed to their rescue with a grass-roots response that was almost immediate and has grown into a massive effort involving boats, airplanes and even barges to deliver donated supplies, tools, generators and equipment.

More than 50 boats, including more than 20 from Vero Beach, showed up with supplies and volunteers the first weekend after Dorian passed through The Bahamas.

Dale Sorensen Jr., managing partner of Dale Sorensen Real Estate, was among the first to arrive, flying to Walker’s Cay with family, friends and supplies that were transported by boat to Grand Cay and distributed to the locals.

Sorensen’s group, which included his 7-year-old son, J.D., also delivered sandwiches donated by Vero Beach’s Chick-Fil-A restaurant.

“The amount of aid and love pouring out of Florida to all of Abaco and the affected areas is pretty amazing,” said Sorensen, another avid fisherman who said he has been visiting the Abacos since he was a small boy.

Sorensen said he was particularly proud watching his son, who spent five hours distributing sandwiches and supplies to Grand Cay residents.

“We have lifelong friends in the Bahamas, and we are frequenting the same establishments as our parents were when they were our age, so the tradition remains,” Sorensen said. “The bond and connection is as strong as it has ever been.”

That personal bond to Grand Cay and its people also prompted Chris and Kerri Mazzarella, owners of Mazzarella’s Auto Sales & Service in Vero Beach, to lead a flotilla of Vero-based boats loaded with supplies the first weekend after the storm.

In the weeks since, Kerri Mazzarella twice has flown back to make more deliveries. She then embarked on what has become a massive effort to collect and package additional supplies, tools, generators and other equipment donated to the cause.

Those items were delivered last week by a donated barge. A second barge was scheduled to arrive this week. The barges are unable to dock at Grand Cay, so the supplies are off-loaded at Walker’s Cay and delivered by boat to its sister island.

“It was a lot of smaller, separate efforts – mostly by fishermen who have been going there for years – that provided the first real relief,” said Kerri Mazzarella, whose family has been visiting Grand Cay for 15 years. “When we made our first trip after the storm, we got off the boat and saw a lot of friends from Vero there, unloading supplies.

“We’ve since connected with another local group headed by Scott McGuire,” she added, “and they’ve provided us with access to a warehouse in Fort Pierce, which is where we’ve been all week.”

McGuire, a South Beach resident and civil engineer at Knight, McGuire & Associates, arranged with fellow island resident Rip Pratt to use a biodiesel plant at the Port of Fort Pierce as a base of operations for his relief effort.

Unlike Mazzarella, McGuire is also sending aid to other Abaco communities, including Hope Town on Elbow Cay, where he owns a house.

“This effort started with guys with sport boats just trying to do something to help, but over the past couple of weeks, it’s expanded into something much bigger,” McGuire said. “We’re getting donations from all over the place, not just Vero, and we’re anticipating this will be a long-term project.”

While Kerri Mazzarella organized her efforts using Facebook and Instagram – donations and volunteers continued to show up throughout the week – she said she also has raised nearly $10,000 in contributions to the GoFundMe account she created.

“We’re accepting cash donations, but we haven’t touched that money yet,” Kerri Mazzarella said, “because so many people are donating supplies.”

Sorensen said he is teaming with Trey Smith and Todd Fennell – with the help of Vero Beach’s Gould, Cooksey, Fennell law firm and attorney Dillon Roberts – to create “The Abaco Foundation,” a nonprofit organization with a mission to provide aid to Bahamians in times of hardship, adversity or natural disasters.

“We want to create an entity that can properly accept donations,” Sorensen said, adding that he expects the Abaco Islands’ recovery to take years. “With our knowledge of the area, we are confident that we can effectively and strategically deliver relief into the right hands.”

McGuire also is planning to create an account for donors to his effort.

“We were one of 10 boats to leave Vero that first weekend, and it’s just continued on,” Connelly said, referring to his trip to Grand Cay on a boat owned by Moorings resident and healthcare executive Yoshi Barreirinhas, who fully stocked it with supplies.

“It’s been an incredible experience because, as much sorrow as you feel for what happened over there, you can’t help but feel good about the response and how much it means to those people.”

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