Hurricane Heroes: Georgia-Florida Aviation Search Team

Ashley Hunter
ECB Publishing, Inc.

In 2016, Monticello native Richard Connell created a search and rescue nonprofit organization that would become the Georgia-Florida Aviation Search Team (or G-Fast for short).
The organization is directed and operated by individuals, pilots, former law enforcement officers, and boat captains who have a history of involvement with search, and rescue operations.
According to Connell, 20 percent of city and county law enforcement agencies do not have aerial support for search and rescue, and when disaster strikes rural counties, most offices for local law enforcement are not equipped to handle the massive task of search and rescue.
That is where G-Fast comes in.
G-Fast offers their services to statewide agencies, non-profit organizations and county agencies that lack the equipment required to perform search and rescue missions, under the belief that no agency should be without the assets that they need to protect and serve their communities.
In 2016, G-Fast assisted with clean up and recovery related to Hurricane Hermine as well as the flooding that took place in Baton Rouge, LA.
In 2017, G-Fast crews traveled to Texas to assist during the flooding in Houston.
Then, in 2018, Connell’s crews were able to assist the counties near home when Hurricane Michael tore through north Florida in October.
The evening before the storm, Connell and his G-Fast crews were staged at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office under the direction of Sheriff Mac McNeill.
According to Connell, they decided to stage at the Sheriff’s Office in order to be near dispatch and be readily on hand to help with any calls that were sent in to the Jefferson County Dispatch Center.
The day before the storm, on Tuesday, October 9, G-Fast met with Sheriff McNeill and Emergency Management in order to create a general plan of action so that everyone would know their role once the hurricane hit Jefferson County.
The day of the storm, on Wednesday, October 10, G-Fast’s crews worked alongside the deputies of the JCSO to clear roads and assist those who were still trying to make it home, or were leaving for refuge centers.
It was during that time that Connell expressed his admiration of Jefferson County’s Sheriff Mac McNeill.
“He personally was out there in the storm,” said Connell. While deputies and G-Fast crews worked alongside each other until the wind speeds of Hurricane Michael grew to unsafe levels, Sheriff McNeill also worked alongside his deputies to clear roads and keep the county safe.
Despite never being in Hurricane Michael’s direct path, Jefferson County was effected by dangerously high speeds, so the mixed crews of G-Fast and the JCSO sought refuge indoors to wait out the storm, only to return back out as soon as it was safe again.
Using G-Fast’s heavy machinary, the crews returned to clearing the roads and were eventually joined by the Jefferson County Road Department.
The combined efforts of all three groups resulted in a record clearing of Jefferson’s roads.
By 6 a.m. on Thursday, October 11, every tree that had obstructed a Jefferson County roadway had been cleared, aside from trees that were dangerously tangled in powerlines, which were left for the local power companies crews to safely clear.
Thanks to the Jefferson County Road Department, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and G-Fast, the lineman were able to quickly work to restore power to the Jefferson County residents who had lost electricty during the storm.
In the days and weeks that followed Hurricane Michael, G-Fast would move to providing aid and relief to Gulf County and Jackson County, where they dispersed generators to churches and groups that were working in the counties to aid and feed hurricane-impacted families.
With their heavy equipment and machinary, G-Fast cleared roads and were able to reached homes that had been blocked off from any main roadways and check in on the families within.
In 18 days, G-Fast dispersed around 500 sandwhich meals to the people who had been unprepared for the devastation of Hurricane Michael.
According to Richard Connell, his crews witnessed countless stories that will stick with them forever as G-Fast sought to provide even a little relief to those whose lives had been devastated by the winds of Hurricane Michael.
While the G-Fast crews have since returned home and Richard Connell is currently staying busy with his personal archeology ventures, G-Fast stays ready and prepared to help when the next disaster strikes.
To learn more about G-Fast visit their website at gfastair.com or stay up-to-date on their current missions by liking their Facebook page at facebook.com/gfastair.