Lawyers launch Hurricane Dorian relief effort to give back to the islands they love

The attorneys and staff at The Law Place firm in Sarasota love to visit the Bahamas often. Since Florida braced for Hurricane Dorian, but was spared the worst, the law firm wanted to give back to Florida’s hospitable neighboring islands.

“We need to give back to the Bahamians for everything they’ve done for us when we go to travel, and the devastation that they are facing,” defense attorney AnneMarie Rizzo told the Bradenton Herald on Tuesday..

On Tuesday morning, a small private plane left Sarasota Bradenton International Airport carrying about 1,200 pounds of donated supplies the law firm has collected. Marcos Ruiz, whose wife is a paralegal at The Law Place, has flown in and out of Freeport plenty of times but Tuesday’s experience was nerve-wracking, he said.

“There were probably 15 airplanes around us at all times, either landing or taking off so we had to circle the airport a couple of times. Finally, they gave us the clearance to land,” Ruiz said.

Even before they landed, the devastation was visible as they approached the Bahamas.

The Freeport airport is destroyed. The control tower is the only building still standing and there is only one operating runway.

“They have no instruments, they have no way of communicating with anybody other than a portable radio station. That is how they talk to the planes that are landing or taking off,” Ruiz said.

On the ground, there was not the paradise Ruiz and Law Place attorneys and staff are used to seeing. Ruiz and his wife, Terri, had just recently visited Treasure Cay in the Abaco Islands.

“It broke my heart to see a whole bunch of people there that just want out. They just wanted out of the island,” Ruiz said.

They had removed the back seats of the small private plane to make sure they could fit the allowed 1,200 pounds of goods. In the co-pilot seat was Walter Valesky, the owner of the plane who offered it to help.

“So legally we could not bring anybody into the U.S. because there was no seats, otherwise we would have brought two people with us,” Ruiz said. “The devastation is just total. It will take years to rebuild that beautiful place.”

Universal Flight Services, based at SRQ airport, is donating the fuel and additional planes, and is coordinating with The Law Place on plans to send donated goods to the Bahamas once a week.

Many local companies have donated supplies and storage space or have volunteered to be a drop-off locations for donations, according to Rizzo.

The law firm is working with the Red Cross and the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency to make sure the donations get into the right hands and to ensure the flights do not interfere with larger relief shipments, such as those by cruise ships, according to Rizzo.

The planes will alternate taking supplies to Nassau and Freeport.

Rizzo and Terri Ruiz were organizing some of the supplies in Universal’s hangar on Tuesday. They had hoped to send a second shipment on Tuesday but getting in out of the Bahamas and later clearing customs in Fort Lauderdale took longer than anticipated.

The group is asking for donations of non-perishable food, water purifiers, baby supplies, cleaning supplies and personal hygiene items. Other items needed include air mattresses, sleeping bags, bedding and tools.

For now, donations of bottled water are discouraged because of weight restrictions. Clothing is also discouraged for now because of the the weight and because it has to be sorted by those receiving it.

Donations can be dropped-off at:

  • The Law Place, 2445 Fruitville Road, Sarasota.
  • Universal Flight Services, 8140 15th St. E., Sarasota.
  • Off the Wagon, 2107 Tamiami Trail, Venice.
  • The Law Place, 3426 West Kennedy Blvd., Tampa.
  • Beach Club, 5151 Ocean Blvd., Siesta Key.
  • Signs in a Day, 4118 Bee Ridge Road, Sarasota.

The following local IHOP locations have also volunteered to be drop-off sites:

  • 11350 Bloomingdale Ave., Riverview.
  • 5001 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach.
  • 1199 N. Washington Blvd., Sarasota.
  • 4910 Spruce St., Tampa
  • 4199 34th St. S., St. Pettersburg.
  • 11111 N. Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa.
  • 802 S. Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa.
  • 30200 U.S. Highway 19 N., Clearwater.
  • 5427 14th St. W., Bradenton.
  • 6320 S.R. 64 East, Bradenton.
  • 4671 Park Blvd., Pinellas Park.
  • 74800 Ulmerton Road, Largo.
  • 10000 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota.
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Jessica De Leon has been covering crime, courts and law enforcement for the Bradenton Herald since 2013. She has won numerous awards for her coverage including the Florida Press Club’s Lucy Morgan Award for In-Depth Reporting in 2016 for her coverage into the death of 11-year-old Janiya Thomas.