Miami Businessman Organizes Relief for Hurricane-Ravaged Dominica

Miami Businessman Organizes Relief for Hurricane-Ravaged Dominica
Courtesy of James Wills
click to enlarge COURTESY OF JAMES WILLS
Courtesy of James Wills
The U.S. is focused this week on Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Maria has left a humanitarian crisis in its wake, with millions of American citizens still without water, food, and power. But Maria caused devastation across the Caribbean, including the tiny island of Dominica, a 290-square-mile nation 400 miles east of Puerto Rico. Within hours of the Category 5 storm striking, 90 percent of the island's buildings were destroyed and, in less than a week, 27 people were killed.

Dominica desperately needs help, although the U.K. pledged five million pounds in relief aid last Friday. One Miami businessman is trying to turn the Magic City's eye toward the ravaged island.

Jonathan Brown, who is also Dominica’s local trade ambassador, says the British aid won’t be nearly enough. What the island nation actually needs, he says, is a coordinated military response and direct help from relief workers. Brown has been coordinating private jets and ships with relief workers and supplies to Dominica since Saturday.

"Five million pounds is great, but if no one is on the ground to help clear the roads or to help people, all you have is five million in the bank and thousands of people dead," the 50-year-old Coral Gables businessman says.

Born in Keswick, a small market town in northwestern England, Brown started a smoked salmon company when he was only 16. His company took off, and the young entrepreneur moved to Miami with an eye on the international market. He established his company, MacKnight Food Group, while taking on development projects in France, the U.K., and the Turks and Caicos. Roosevelt Skerritt, Dominica’s prime minister, invited the Englishman to be the island’s honorary ambassador-at-large in trade and commerce. Since then, the father of five says he’s been facilitating business contracts for Dominica across the globe.

But Hurricane Maria left many of the island's business enterprises in shambles. Hours before the storm made landfall last Tuesday, Maria intensified from a Category 3 to a Category 5 monster. By the time the storm moved northwest, the island’s 71,000 people were left with massive flooding, heaps of debris, and no functioning power lines.
“Imagine what two weeks without power, water, or medicine looks like,” Brown says. “This could be one of history’s worst disasters in the Caribbean.”

Brown partnered with Rescue Global, a U.K.-based nongovernmental organization that provides disaster relief. On Saturday, he chartered two private jets to transport government ministers and relief workers from Barbados to Dominica, where they began surveying the damage.

Then he began stocking the planes with essentials. Over the weekend, his teams collected satellite phones, chainsaws, water filters, baby food, adult diapers, batteries, and nonperishable foods such as dehydrated chicken breast. “We will keep doing it until we run out of money,” says Brown, who estimates the supplies to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

He says he has recruited three additional jets, which he has committed to shuttle back and forth between Florida and Dominica once a day. It’s been a difficult planning process, he says, because Dominica’s airport is more than 1,200 nautical miles from Miami and his fuel supplies are limited. “We need planes that can reach Dominica and come back while carrying the maximum cargo,” he says.

But conditions on the ground make relief work especially difficult on the tiny island. Dominica's small airport currently has only one functioning runway, so only small planes can land.

“It’s not like the disasters in mainland United States like New Orleans, in which [aid workers] can just drive in, fly in, or truck in reasonably quickly,” he says.

Even with the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Brown says Florida shouldn't neglect the people of Dominica.

“We have military bases in Florida sitting on ready-to-eat meals to take to wars," he says. "[Dominica] doesn’t have a war, but the country looks like it had a nuclear bomb dropped on it.”

Brown has set up a GoFundMe page for anyone interested in helping support relief work in Dominica. He's also collecting supplies at 550 NE 185th St., Miami. (Call 305-812-8864 to schedule a time.)
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Isabella Vi Gomes was a writing fellow at Miami New Times. She graduated from Princeton University in 2016. She then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.