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State vows more help for people in Israel while some question aid

Governor's office
Governor DeSantis’ office announced Sunday that a partnership with the Tampa-based Project Dynamo brought more than 270 people from Israel to Tampa International Airport and a smaller group to Orlando. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has been flying Americans from Israel to Greece.

TALLAHASSEE --- With the state paying for the flights, a Tampa-based non-profit organization brought a group of Americans home from Israel on Sunday as part of carrying out an executive order issued last week by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

While the governor’s office promised more assistance to people in Israel, Democrats questioned the so-far undisclosed amount of state spending on actions that at least partly match federal efforts.

Late Sunday, DeSantis’ office announced that a partnership with the Tampa-based Project Dynamo brought more than 270 people from Israel to Tampa International Airport and a smaller group to Orlando. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has been flying Americans from Israel to Greece.

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Bryan Stern, CEO and founder of Project Dynamo, told reporters Monday that the non-profit undertook five flights to transport people from Tel Aviv as a war continues after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

Stern said the flights were, in part, set up by state Sen. Jay Collins, a Tampa Republican and Green Beret combat veteran.

Collins tweeted late Sunday, “Grateful to help make this happen with @Project_Dynamo1 and @GovRonDeSantis! We brought 270 Americans back home tonight.”

As Project Dynamo brought people to Florida, U.S. State Department-organized charter flights have been taking Americans out of Israel since Friday to Athens, where efforts were ramping up to link the evacuees to connecting flights.

“The State Department will continue to organize these charter flights for as long as there is a demand from U.S. citizens,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

The U.S. government is also working with Royal Caribbean to ferry people from Israel to Cyprus.

The operations have been pieced together since American, Delta and United airlines halted direct flights to Israel last week.

About 17,000 inquiries have reportedly been submitted to the U.S. government about travel assistance from Israel.

On Sunday, the Florida Division of Emergency Management tweeted to people “stranded in Athens and in need of safe transportation back to the United States, we may be able to assist you.”

DeSantis, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, was on hand to meet the evacuees in Tampa.

A news release late Sunday from DeSantis’ office said the Division of Emergency Management “will lead efforts for additional flights which will take more supplies to Israel and continue to bring Floridians back home.”

Division of Emergency Management officials didn’t immediately respond Monday to questions about the cost of the flights and future plans.

But Democrats questioned the need for the state’s actions.

House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said she hopes all Americans in the region can safely get back home but also said it appears DeSantis has overstepped the federal government to further his political ambitions.

“This is a very serious situation that's unfolding in the Middle East over the Gaza Strip,” Driskell said in a conference call with reporters. “I think it requires expertise. It requires the American military. It certainly requires our commander in chief, that's President Joe Biden, and I think for a governor --- not just ours but any governor --- to intervene is overstepping those boundaries.”

Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton, said the governor’s actions send a “dangerous” message to the world that the “United States is not taking care of its citizens.”

Skidmore also pointed to questions about the use of resources.

“The websites where you go and request a flight home are very similar; the Florida website and the national website,” Skidmore said. “What if an individual fills that form out twice? What kind of resources are we wasting by sending two different rescue efforts to the same group of individuals?”

A fundraising email from DeSantis’ campaign on Monday said that “While Joe Biden is sleeping, Ron DeSantis is putting the mission first and getting Americans home safe.”

The veterans-led Project Dynamo said it has conducted about 600 rescue operations.

“We conduct global and domestic operations, in ‘The Grey Space,’ where the U.S. government lacks access or a presence to rescue the most vulnerable populations, including hostages, unlawfully detained Americans, and victims of human trafficking,” Project Dynamo said on its website.

Stern said the Israel flights were the first time the non-profit has drawn government funding for its missions, which have included operations from Afghanistan to Ukraine and in response to natural disasters such as Hurricane Ian.

DeSantis’ executive order made available money from what is known as the state’s Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund, which received $500 million in the current year’s budget.