TALLAHASSEE — Nearly two dozen Americans fleeing Israel with the help of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration were stranded for days in Cyprus before they finally got to Florida on Wednesday, according to the head of an international rescue organization who blamed contractors that state officials hired to run the operation.
Their rush to help DeSantis score political points for his presidential campaign caused the confusion, said Bryan Stern, CEO of Project Dynamo, which partnered with Florida on the missions.
“That is why the state people were in a rush to get a flight loaded and off the ground,” Stern said in a telephone interview with the Orlando Sentinel this week.
A passenger on that flight agreed that the contractors delayed his family’s evacuation.
“We thought we were going to fly out of Cyprus the same day, and then we were informed it would be the next day,” said Stuart Zins, a San Francisco Bay area resident who along with his wife and three daughters was among the 48 who returned to the U.S. on Wednesday.
Instead, “it was 3-4 days later,” he said.
“It was disappointing,” added Zins, who was otherwise grateful for the state’s efforts getting his family home. “It was not Project Dynamo, however, it was the contractor that caused the delays.”
A spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management noted the urgency of evacuating as many people as possible who wanted to leave Israel.
“Make no mistake, getting Americans home — specifically evacuating them from a war zone, isn’t easy, and we have already brought over 500 people back to American soil,” spokeswoman Alecia Collins said in a statement.
As for the claims that the contractors were not up to the task, Collins said, “While we always look at our operations to determine best practices, we will review these international rescue operations after this activation. Currently, we are focused on seeing this through and bringing Americans home.”
Many names of the contractors and other details of the operation have not been provided despite repeated requests. At least one contractor has been identified as ARS/Global Emergency Management, but no records of state payments to it could be found online.
The only cost revealed so far is the $4 million spent on the first evacuation that ended with a jet landing in Tampa on Sunday night.
Meantime, a third flight carrying 200 passengers arrived in Tampa early Thursday, and another flight was expected Friday, DeSantis said in a post on social media. He said in interviews that his goal was to get at least 1,000 people home.
“While the federal government drags its feet, we are delivering results,” DeSantis said.
In fact, the State Department is conducting charter flights out of Ben Gurion Airport. It offered 5,000 seats and has reported evacuating at least 1,500 Americans so far.
The state has plans for other flights the details of which couldn’t “be shared at this time for security purposes,” Collins said.
Shortly after the war with Hamas began, Project Dynamo, a nonprofit group made up of military veterans and volunteers founded by Stern two years ago, was already in Israel putting together passenger lists.
Stern got a call from Sen. Jay Collins, R-Tampa, a friend and fellow military veteran, on Oct. 12.
They agreed to work together, with Stern lining up passengers and state contractors getting charter planes. Twenty minutes later, DeSantis issued an executive order directing the Division of Emergency Management to bring Floridians home.
DEM said it had a plane 22 minutes away in Jordan cleared to land in Tel Aviv, Stern said, but it did not have the necessary clearance, sending the contractors scrambling to find another available jet.
That gave Stern his first inkling that they were not as experienced with large-scale evacuations of people in war zones. Project Dynamo has conducted more than 600 successful missions and brought home nearly 7,000 Americans in their two years of operation, he said.
“I kept saying, ‘I’ve literally done hundreds of these types of operations, and if you want the help, we’re the experts in this,”’ Stern said. “DeSantis’ group said, ‘we’ve got this,’ but it became apparent that the contractors were steering DEM.”
They were also competing with each other to get the most charters, and raising prices by bidding against each other for the same planes, he said.
“The contractors didn’t know what they were doing,” he said.
Another hiccup came when it turned out that most of the passengers assembled for the big plane ride home were observant Jews who won’t fly on the Sabbath, creating a 24-hour blackout window from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
So they had to push the flight back six hours to midnight Saturday, but it didn’t leave Tel Aviv until Sunday morning, Stern said. It arrived in Tampa that same night, with Stern on board.
Also on Saturday, Project Dynamo helped gather a group of people OK with flying on the Sabbath. DEM found someone with connections to the DeSantis administration who had a plane in the area and was willing to help, Stern said.
Zins said a “plush” Learjet got them to Cyprus. The jet made three flights to Cyprus, dropping off 23 people. It also made one flight to Madrid with eight people, which turned into another problem for Stern, who said he bought them all commercial tickets to the United States.
Once those people were in Cyprus, Collins said, the division “made sure to accommodate their needs until additional transportation could be secured for an overseas flight.”
Zins said the layover wasn’t a bad experience, except that they arrived in Cyprus without most of their luggage, which Project Dynamo had placed on the first jet.
The people who owned the Learjet checked in on them frequently and even gave them $500 to buy medicine and clothing. The waterfront Crowne Plaza hotel where they stayed let them eat at the breakfast buffet for free and they got a $30 allowance for dinner.
The first jet landed with 270 people landed in Tampa on Sunday night, to a great deal of fanfare and media. DeSantis and the first lady greeted them as they got off the plane, and Stern and DeSantis shook hands.
Stern said he didn’t know at that point there were still 23 people in Cyprus.
“I thought they were here already,” he said.
The Cyprus group was delayed from leaving Saturday for America because the original jet chartered for their home journey developed mechanical problems, Zins said.
The state’s contractor finally announced it had another large jet ready that would be leaving Wednesday, Zins said, but it would be stopping in Athens to pick up another 24 passengers.
Zins said he was told 200 people would be on the plane.
Instead, a nearly empty jet finally took off Wednesday morning, Zins said. “Most of us got to sit up in business class,” he said. “The entire center aisle was empty.”
Stern was frustrated because he had a lot more passengers he could have gotten to Athens and put on that plane if they knew how many seats were available.
When they arrived in Tampa they were finally reunited with their luggage.
But they still had one more leg to go: home to California. Project Dynamo came up with a flight that was three hours quicker than the one state contractors offered, Zins said.
“Project Dynamo is who we wound up going with,” Zins said, “and we are really glad we did.”
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