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Local organization rescues the unreachable

Mark Parker



Project Dynamo founder and CEO Bryan Stearn (second from left) and members of his team in Maui. Photos provided.

Tampa-based nonprofit Project Dyanmo’s leadership returned from evacuating Maui wildfire victims just in time to prepare for an emergency much closer to home – Hurricane Idalia.

The veteran-led, donor-funded organization operates in “the grey space.” That is where the U.S. government either lacks a presence or cannot access an area for various reasons.

The Maui wildfires, which burned thousands of acres and killed at least 115 people last month, encompassed the latter aspect. Founder Bryan Stern returned to Tampa Bay just days before Idalia struck Florida’s Big Bend region as a Category 3 hurricane, and immediately began preparing for local rescues and emergency assistance.

“Very rarely, or almost never, will you see pictures of my team side by side with Red Cross, National Guard, police officers or even the military,” Stern said. “We did Hurricane Ian – we were the first in the water. We beat Florida Fish & Wildlife; we beat the Florida State Police, and we beat the United States Coast Guard.

“We had completed our second operation when they were first getting into the water … Maui was the same way.”

Stern and his team drove up the coast and surveyed Hurricane Idalia’s immediate impacts. No additional calls for Idalia-related assistance, he said, had been received as of Sept. 1.

The gray space

Project Dynamo officials credited state leadership for a prepared and quick response in Idalia’s aftermath that “shrunk” the gray space to save lives and property. That was not the case in Maui or Southwest Florida last year.

Project Dynamo’s leadership survey flooding from Hurricane Idalia.

Stern said his team conducted air rescues and delivered humanitarian aid to the Hawaiian Islands six days before the U.S. military. He compared Project Dynamo to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in WWII, a small and elite intelligence unit.

“We have a lot of skills that allow us to do things that are seemingly impossible,” Stern said. “To include breaking people out of jail from Russia, which has never been done before. We’ve done it many times.”

He said natural disasters present similar challenges. While forecasters provide a storm’s likely path, Stern explained that impacts remain unknown until the aftermath.

Project Dynamo prepares for the worst. Officials stockpile trauma beds, emergency medical supplies, bolt-cutters and extraction tools.

However, Stern said his team operates light to remain nimble. “In Maui, me and three guys with carry-on bags rescued more people via helicopter than the entire Pacific Fleet for the United States Navy – combined,” he added.

Stern began preparing satellite communications, installing firmware updates and ensuring encrypted software was operational as Idalia approached the coast. He also prepped chainsaws stowed away since Hurricane Ian.

Perhaps more importantly, he began developing a local network to provide vital resources. The latest natural disaster necessitated boats rather than helicopters.

“Do I need john boats, or do I need air boats?” Stern asked rhetorically. “Am I sailing across the bay to Safety Harbor from the Tampa side because the roads and bridges are taken out? We think through these problems in advance.”

He explained that Project Dynamo is not a tourist company or bus service. Stern said it is a last resort for the unreachable, and they leave as soon as the government responds.

Bryan Stearn said Tampa-based Project Dynamo was the first to rescue Hurricane Ian and Maui Wildfire (pictured) victims.

Afghanistan roots

He launched the local nonprofit in September 2021 during the military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Stern spent several years in that country as a former service member.

He also survived the World Trade Center collapse as a 9-11 first responder. Stern was preparing for a 20th-anniversary speech as he watched people falling from the last military plane out of Afghanistan.

“It rubbed me so wrong,” Stern said. “Almost 20 years to the day, I’m watching people fall to their deaths. The Taliban are back in charge. I got angry, and I’m a ‘bring the fight to the enemy’ kind of guy.”

Stern gathered some veteran friends and went to help rescue American citizens and interpreters – whom he credits for saving his life during combat. He said Project Dynamo is still evacuating people from the country two years later.

The local nonprofit – comprised of veterans, humanitarians and gold star families with military and Afghanistan ties – has rescued over 6,000 people and hundreds of animals. In addition to airlifting people and pets away from encroaching flames in Maui, Stern and his team delivered breast milk to babies.

Much-needed resources

Air Maui, a Vietnam veteran-owned tourism company, contacted Project Dynamo for help. The owner let the organization borrow four aircraft for a week.

“We were in the air day one,” Stern said. “It takes 30 people to make a decision in the government. We don’t have that problem.”

Stern said the Project Dynamo has a 100% success rate. He explained that families typically contact the organization via its website or social media pages.

However, it lacks the resources of government agencies. Stern noted that the missions are expensive and funded by small donors.

He is looking for additional corporate sponsors, and Project Dynamo will host its first fundraising gala Nov. 2 at Tampa’s Armature Works. Stern also stressed that the company is non-partisan, represents several demographics and works at the behest of “good Americans.”

“The beauty of Dynamo, as we go into a crazy election cycle, is that it represents what America is really about,” Stern said. “There is no Republican in an ambush; there’s no Democrat in a foxhole. It doesn’t exist.”




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