Crossroads Alliance & Ministries will use private aircraft to ferry tons of humanitarian aid to the stricken islands.

With Marion County spared the lashing thought imminent from Hurricane Dorian, the county now becomes an epicenter for the response effort to help the devastated islands of the Bahamas.

Crossroads Alliance & Ministries, based in Ocala, began airlifts to the islands on Wednesday, transporting bottled water, non-perishable food, blankets and hygiene items.

"We've got more than 100 airplanes that will be responding to the Bahamas. The flight operations have already begun. We will be at Ocala International Airport, and we'll be loading planes all day (Thursday) and going from there," said Steve Ewing, who started the group about 15 years ago.

The planes are all private and vary in size from two-seat, single-engine planes to multi-engine aircraft.

"We've got pilots coming in from Minnesota, some from out west in Colorado, from Connecticut and all in between," Ewing said.

The only commercial airport open on the islands as of Wednesday was in Nassau, but the smaller planes can land on airstrips scattered throughout the islands.

"Right now, we have recon flights all over the islands down there looking at 12 different landing sites. Some are underwater, some have debris," he said, adding that they have located three open airstrips including one in Treasure Cay and another in Freeport.

The early reports from the islands indicate at least 20 deaths and widespread destruction as floodwaters and high winds leveled thousands of homes and buildings. The Category 5 storm was the most powerful on record to hit the islands.

"This is by far, by far, the worst natural disaster that we've responded too," Ewing said, noting they have responded to disasters including the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and Hurricane Maria two years ago, among others.

Supplies arrive from other relief organizations and companies to the Crossroads Alliance warehouse in Ocala. The group also takes in donations from the community. From there, the material will go to the Ocala airport and to airports in Fort Lauderdale and Fort Myers, where it gets loaded on the planes for the short trip to the islands. 

"We have a quarter of a million bottles of water right now and have seven truckloads more coming in the next few days," Ewing said. "We have a knack for large-scale logistics. For (hurricanes) Irma and Maria, we moved almost 300 truckloads of supplies. Last year, I think we were about 60 truckloads for (Hurricane) Michael."

Many denominations have established relief organizations in place that work with groups like Ewing's to translate church members' cash donations into needed supplies. 

Ocala First United Methodist Church is one of those. For September, they will hold a special collection during their services to raise money for Hurricane Dorian relief. Those donations then go to the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

"They are already on the ground in the Bahamas and provide that immediate, dire needed relief including, food, medical care and temporary housing." said David Fuquay, co-pastor of the Ocala church.

He said member of the congregation will likely join mission trips in the months to come to help in the rebuilding effort. Church members have helped in Hurricane Michael rebuilding efforts and others.

At the Crossroads Alliance warehouse on Wednesday afternoon, Greg Sutter of the Knights of Columbus' disaster response team showed up to coordinate with the group on the transfer of supplies.

"We get the supplies and then turn it over to Catholic Charities," Sutter said.

Ewing works with Catholic Charities.

"This is the alliance. This is how it works. One of the Knights of Columbus reps called not even an hour ago, and here he is showing up because they got a truck with supplies coming in," Ewing said.

Contact Carlos E. Medina at 867-4157 or cmedina@starbanner.com