Tampa rescue group Project Dynamo: DeSantis ‘paid for the plane’ out of Israel

“This is the first time where any government agency has assisted us financially,” the nonprofit’s co-founder said.
Bryan Stern with Project Dynamo looks on as Gov. Ron DeSantis talks to the media after greeting passengers arriving from Israel on a chartered flight on Sunday.
Bryan Stern with Project Dynamo looks on as Gov. Ron DeSantis talks to the media after greeting passengers arriving from Israel on a chartered flight on Sunday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Oct. 16, 2023|Updated Oct. 17, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — To safely fly Americans from Israel to Tampa on Sunday, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration partnered with a nonprofit that specializes in bringing U.S. citizens home from conflict zones around the world, covering the cost of air travel that the organization priced out at millions of dollars.

The Republican governor has said the state is planning more flights in the coming days, but has not said whether the state will continue to partner with Project Dynamo, a Tampa-based organization that has been criticized by U.S. government officials for being too willing to take risks.

Project Dynamo’s co-founder, Bryan Stern, told reporters on Monday that his organization had successfully extracted 270 people on Sunday night who had sought to leave Israel as the war with Hamas erupted.

It was one of five private flights funded by the DeSantis administration through Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, Stern said. Of the first four flights, two carried eight people and two carried twelve, transferring fewer passengers because they took off over the Jewish Sabbath.

“This is the first time where any government agency has assisted us financially. The governor of the state of Florida paid for the plane,” Stern said.

DeSantis’ involvement in the foreign policy conflict has amplified the Republican governor’s role in what generally would have been outside the state’s purview. DeSantis, a presidential candidate, was able to help in the international conflict after issuing an emergency declaration Thursday that gave the executive branch broad powers to spend money and act.

Kevin Guthrie, the executive director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said in an interview with NewsNation on Tuesday that Florida spent about $4 million to fly Americans from Israel to Tampa.

“All in all, we’re probably sitting right around $4 million on that particular flight with all of the services, hotel stays, rental cars — anything that we had to get to help the people get back to their homes,” Guthrie said.

The average cost of each chartered flight from Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport to Tampa International is roughly $2 million, Stern said, based on quotes received by Project Dynamo as it initially planned to charter the planes themselves.

Stern noted that insurance costs can vary to fly an airplane into a war zone, and said he did not know how much the state government ultimately paid since it handled the contracts directly.

He also did not know whether the Florida government would be funding future flights.

“That’s a government question,” he said, adding that he feared Israel’s airspace would soon be closed.

The governor’s office did not respond to questions about the cost of the missions, or whether it plans to fund any additional flights. It has also not explained how the state picked Project Dynamo and has not said whether it required the nonprofit to abide by any rules in exchange for the funding.

DeSantis has direct access to a $500 million Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund that the Florida Legislature approved last year to give him spending flexibility when he declares emergencies. While it is unclear if the fund was used to pay for the Israel flights, DeSantis has historically tapped into the fund to pay for his priorities, including border security initiatives in Texas.

Stern said the nonprofit took the lead on all the logistics.

“Essentially, we did the ground piece and the manifesting and the case management and all the hard stuff in the war zone,” Stern said. “(The state) funded the aircraft and we landed and got to meet Gov. Ron DeSantis.”

Stern said last week that Project Dynamo had been facing logistical barriers, and he was on the ground preparing to help Americans leave Israel when his team was put in touch through friends and associates with the Florida administration.

For example, he said that it was “extremely difficult” to get out of Israel. There are plane tickets going for $25,000 a seat in some cases, he said.

“I think that Gov. DeSantis wanted to do something. But before he issued the executive order, he needed to know that he had partners,” Stern said on Monday.

Stern got in touch with his friend, Republican state Sen. Jay Collins, a veteran from Sarasota, and then had a conversation with officials in Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, including its director, Kevin Guthrie.

“Kevin and I and some others had a kind of in-depth conversation about Dynamo, about us, the idea that we were on the ground, already there, deployed, already had people — everything was basically lined up except for the planes, made us a very good solution that the governor could trust,” Stern said. “Obviously we’ve done a lot of high-profile media stuff, so it’s very easy to do due diligence on us. I think that happened. And about 20 minutes later the executive order came out and we were in business.”

When DeSantis directed the Florida Division of Emergency Management to charter flights for stranded Florida residents, it was not clear how the state planned to fly people from Israel to Florida.

On Saturday, the governor told Fox News in an interview that Florida was working with the Israeli government to be able to get clearance for the flights to take off.

“We are an emergency response state, we have a lot of tools at our disposal, we have a lot of relationships, and so this is our Department of Emergency Management leveraging those relationships in a variety of ways. We have contractors, we have relationships with airlines,” DeSantis said in the interview.

DeSantis did not mention Project Dynamo in the interview.

Project Dynamo’s history

Project Dynamo was successful at conducting private rescues of Americans in Afghanistan at the end of the war there in 2021. After the U.S. military departed in September, with Taliban forces in full control, Dynamo chartered an aircraft that flew more than 120 U.S. citizens and green card holders to the United States.

The group, founded by three Florida men, expanded its operations after Afghanistan, rescuing U.S. citizens in Ukraine in 2022 and aiding in the evacuation of Maui in the wake of devastating wildfires there this summer.

But some in the U.S. government expressed concern that the group took risks that other nonprofits would not. One of their flights out of Afghanistan in September had to be grounded in the United Arab Emirates en route to the United States after Project Dynamo failed to share the manifest with U.S. authorities in advance. One individual on the flight was ultimately not allowed to enter the United States.

In an email on Monday, DeSantis spokesperson Jeremy Redfern said that all of the 270 passengers aboard the 17-hour flight from Tel Aviv to Tampa were American citizens. (Stern said passengers included 269 Americans, “a Czech dude” and four dogs.)

Project Dynamo can only do one plane at a time, Stern said, thanking DeSantis for being the first American politician ever to greet their evacuees.

“It just means so much to us. Usually we show up and there is nothing. There is no welcome home, there is nothing,” Stern said.

On social media, staffers with DeSantis’ presidential campaign reposted mock logos of “DeSANTIS AIRLINES” featuring star-spangled eagles and amplified news about the flights to showcase what they believe to be emblematic of DeSantis’ leadership style.

“This is what leadership looks like. DeSantis delivers for Americans,” Christina Pushaw, the rapid response director for DeSantis’ presidential campaign posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Tampa Bay Times staff writers Jay Cridlin and C.T. Bowen contributed to this report.