The passenger list totaled 270 people, including 91 children, all but one of whom was a U.S. citizen. There were four dogs in tow, as well.
They spent 17 hours in the air traveling from Tel Aviv to Portugal to Tampa on a chartered EuroAtlantic Airways jet adorned with the motto “anytime, anywhere.”
Sunday night, they departed the plane to walk a gauntlet of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol security. Standing further back on the tarmac at Tampa International Airport were the official greeters: Gov. Ron DeSantis shook hands and posed for photographs. His wife, Casey, offered hugs. Positioned behind them were American and Israeli flags.
The passengers were among the first evacuees to arrive in Florida from Israel after DeSantis signed an order Thursday directing the Florida Division of Emergency Management to charter flights for stranded Florida residents. A separate flight took seven people to Orlando earlier Sunday.
At the time of the executive order, the governor estimated 20,000 U.S. citizens remained in Israel. Sunday night, he said the number of Floridians might be 700 to 1,000.
They were stranded because of canceled commercial flights amid the latest Israel-Hamas war that has already claimed the lives of thousands.
The state partnered with Project Dynamo on the evacuation. The nonprofit agency has conducted 602 rescue missions to relocate 6,700 people since it formed in 2021 amid the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Founder and CEO Bryan Stern of Tampa spoke with DeSantis last week shortly before he issued the executive order.
Stern said that the governor told him, “I buy. You fly.”
Florida’s financial assistance, the amount of which wasn’t available Sunday night, is the first government subsidy Project Dynamo has received, Stern said. And DeSantis’ appearance marked the first time a public official had been on hand to greet evacuees.
“It is not a Republican thing. It is not a Democratic thing. It’s a respect for America thing,” Stern told reporters.
“The bottom line is these are American citizens. I don’t care if they’re Jewish or Christian or Muslim. We rescue everybody.”
Additional flights are planned over the next several days. All will land at Tampa International Airport, DeSantis said.
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“The state of Florida stepped up and answered the call,” DeSantis said Sunday.
Some of the evacuees who landed in Tampa are from Florida, Stern said. One woman, who walked her beagle named Kai near a gaggle of reporters, said she was originally from New York, but now lived in Israel.
DeSantis repeated his prior criticism of the federal government for not moving fast enough to evacuate Americans to the U.S.
Future flights could include stops in Greece to pick up evacuees who had been relocated there instead of to the U.S., the governor said.
“We want to be helpful. I think everybody there felt very relieved. ... They were telling me ... bombs were going off. Rockets are going off,” DeSantis said. “They were saying, ‘We want to go to Florida. We want to go to Florida.’ Well, now they’re in Florida.”