As Spencer Upchurch read and watched media reports about the devastation in the Bahamas left behind by Category 5 Hurricane Dorian this week, he had one prevailing thought.
“That could have easily been us,” Upchurch said Friday afternoon. “We have seen destruction in past hurricanes, but we got off easy compared to what they are going through.”
So he and his wife, Christina, owners of the Fried Chicken Kitchen food truck in St. Augustine, decided to do something to help by acting as a collection point for those wishing to donate supplies to the region. As a thank you, anyone who donates to the food truck's location at 1510 N. Ponce De Leon Blvd. will receive a free dinner.
“So far we have had a phenomenal response and we are hoping to fill up as many U-Hauls as we can,” he said.
Upchurch is just one of many businesses and organizations in St. Johns County who are helping to collect supplies and raise money for Hurricane Dorian victims. The storm took the lives of at least 30 people, and that number could eventually be “significantly higher,” Bahamian health minister Duane Sands said Thursday night.
For Mojo’s Tacos on Anastasia Island, the natural disaster hit close to home.
“One of my employees is from the Bahamas,” said Mojo’s Tacos owner Laura Devlin. “He has been in contact with his family and everyone survived, which is a miracle in itself.”
Devlin said the employee, who has worked at the restaurant for two years and did not wish to be named at this time, was from the Abaco Islands, one of the hardest hit areas.
Mojo’s has set up a collection box in the restaurant with a list of items needed such as feminine products, baby products, first aid kits, hats, shoes and water.
“They are in dire need of supplies,” Devlin said. “My employee’s brother is walking around with no shoes on right now.”
Devlin said she is working with a reputable nonprofit, HeadKnowles, formed by two Bahamians living in the United States, to get supplies to those most in need.
Upchurch has linked up with MySky, a local air charter that is flying the donated supplies to the Bahamas.
“We are utilizing our fleet to bring supplies over once we have the proper approvals and the flight permits,” said Elliot Mintzer, president of MySky.
Mintzer said the outpouring of support has been amazing, but the situation on the islands is getting worse by the minute. Upchurch said he chose to work with MySky because “they are doing it the right way.”
“They are not just throwing it on the street. They are going to be distributing the supplies properly,” Upchurch said.
Milena Lyons, owner of Mermaid Life, is also accepting donations in the coming days at her warehouse off U.S. 1. She plans to join a group of boaters who will load up yachts in West Palm Beach in the coming days and make the 60-plus mile trip to West End and drop off supplies like new clothes, dolls and generators.
“We know people down there who are like family to us,” Lyons said. “It’s just heartbreaking what happened.”
Lyons said she and her husband have been going to the islands, including Abacos, for about 10 years.
“We have created so many memories there, we owe this to them,” she said. "We go over to that island, we enjoy ourselves we have a good time, we boat and we fish. We use their island for pleasure, now it’s time to pitch in.”
Other local donation sites and organizations
• Windward Marina Group, at 404 Riberia St., is taking maritime donations such as old outboard motors to help the local boating community. Manager Steve Mask said the marina will take the motors, fix them, and send them over along with batteries, solar panels and other supplies.
"Most of Bahamian life takes place on water," Mask said. "We are doing what we can to get going again."
• St. Augustine Distillery has launched a local fundraiser to support victims of the storm with a goal to raise $5,000 for the relief with St. Augustine/First Coast Community to come together. From Friday through Sept. 15, the Distillery will donate $10 for every 750ml bottle of bourbon sold at their gift shop to World Central Kitchen, a not-for-profit organization devoted to providing meals in the wake of natural disasters.
• Ian Walker, organizer of the Jerk and Curry Music Festival scheduled for Sept. 14 at Francis Field, said he plans to donate 50 percent of money collected at the gate to relief efforts. Walker said he is working with Jacksonville nonprofit WeCareJax.
• A number of other organizations, such as the Girl Scouts of America and local churches, are also involved in collecting donations. Check with your local church or other nonprofits.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody issued a consumer alert on Thursday warning Floridians about potential charity scams exploiting Bahamian-recovery efforts. Her tips included the following:
• Never give credit card numbers, gift card account numbers or bank account information to a caller on the phone or in response to an unsolicited email.
• Before donating over the phone or online, take steps to verify the charity or fundraising campaign.
• Watch for charities with similar-sounding names. It is not unusual for scammers to choose names that sound like the names of legitimate, widely known charities.
• Look up the charity on CharityNavigator.org before giving.
• Research and review the organization carefully to understand how much of the donation will actually go toward the work of the charity as opposed to administrative expenses and overhead.