Key West to help island in the Bahamas that is its sister city and hit hard by Dorian

In between watching the horror Hurricane Dorian is leaving in the Bahamas, a group of Key West leaders met Monday to put together a humanitarian relief effort for Key West’s sister city, Green Turtle Cay.

The narrow barrier island is off the mainland Great Abaco, which, as the 21 Key West leaders — including Mayor Teri Johnston — met in a home in Key West, was still being pummeled by the brutal, slow-moving Category 4 storm.

Many in the room have spent time in Green Turtle Cay, like former city commissioner Mark Rossi, who owns a complex of Duval Street bars.

They know it is a tiny island that can only be reached by boat in the best of weather.

And they know that Key West is lucky to have dodged Dorian.

“We think it will take seven to 10 years to rebuild Abaco,” said Bishop Johnny Carey, of Glad Tidings Tabernacle Church in Key West. “Thirteen thousand homes have been destroyed or partially destroyed.”

Carey, who is from the Bahamas, said a lot of Bahamians didn’t take the evacuation seriously.

“Some of the cays [residents] came into the mainland,” he said. “The problem is the hurricane sat over the mainland.”

They already have a Facebook page — Conch Republic Hurricane Dorian Help! — devoted to the fundraising effort, called “Key West Cares,” and on Monday laid the groundwork for the project.

They’ll set up a trust account for financial donations rather than one with GoFundMe.

They set priorities and handed out jobs, from public relations and political representation to finance and fundraising events.

“It’s hard to imagine a more powerful group in Key West that cares about the Bahamas,” said Jim Gilleran, who owns a Duval Street bar and has served on government committees. He helped organize the meeting.

“We are a community that cares,” he said.

“Initially, we want to try to get some planes,” Carey said.

Finbar Gittelman, a legendary boat captain in the Keys and a leader of the “Conch Republic Navy” — a farcical group that has a far reach when it comes to a volunteer base — said he can find people to fly in volunteers and possibly medical supplies.

Danny Hughes, who hosted the meeting in his home in downtown Key West, said he can help find planes to deliver goods. “I’ve engaged some of my contacts,” he said.

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Carey said his church has a 9-acre site in Marsh Harbour that can house at least 100.

“We have to identify what kind of donations are necessary and where to keep it,” said Bernadette Restivo, a lawyer who helped launch a post-Hurricane Irma recovery project in 2017.

Royal Furniture has donated half of its old store in Marathon, about 2,000 square feet, for storage, she said.

“Blankets, clothes, baby food items, toiletries, diapers,” Carey said.

Carey said he believes officials there will waive customs and airport fees for the Key West effort.

“Diapers and chain saws,” said Maura Hughes, ticking off post-storm necessities.

“I don’t want people cleaning out their closets,” said Kurt Lewin, senior vice president of the First State Bank of the Florida Keys. “Diapers, baby food, water.”

Lewin said he knows a company in West Palm Beach that sends a ship to the region every two weeks.

“We would have to get [supplies] from here to West Palm Beach,” he said.

Several people brought up that donations must be the most basic necessities.

Restivo recalled when the Irma recovery group received a kitchen sink and a horse saddle, as an extreme example of unwanted donations. Someone also sent a case of Mentos mints to Key West after Irma.

Others in the group announced financial donors already on board.

The Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea will hold a fundraiser, said Deacon Peter Batty, who’s also chairman of the Keys Energy Utility Board.

Batty said Keys Energy may be able to send a crew if they’re not needed first in the Fort Pierce area.

The Lion’s Club will cut a check, as did several people in the room on Monday, instantly raising nearly $5,000 by going around the room.

“Hit up your friends,” Gilleran told everyone.

City Manager Greg Veliz reminded the group that volunteers planning to go to the Bahamas after the hurricane must be ready to house and feed themselves.

“Do not expect there’s going to be warehouse space or hotel rooms,” he said. “Make sure that’s all arranged. They’re in no position to provide.”