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Evacuate in style - for a price

Worried about escaping the next big storm? Pull out your checkbook, and it's no problem.

Published September 16, 2006

WEST PALM BEACH - There are the hurricane evacuation images everyone has come to conjure - stranded victims, snaking traffic and helicopters dispatched to rooftops. And then there is HelpJet.

The new service from West Palm Beach-based Galaxy Aviation guarantees its well-heeled members a seat on a chartered jet out of the hurricane zone, reserves five-star hotel rooms and limousine transfers and rolls out a red carpet - literally.

"We call it evacuation in style," said Brian Rems, who came up with the HelpJet concept.

Rems moved to South Florida from New Jersey and began work at Galaxy Aviation a few weeks before Hurricane Wilma struck last year. He noticed all the calls pouring into the office as the storm loomed at sea.

And when Wilma's arrival was imminent, Rems tried to book commercial flights for him, his wife and three children, but found nothing available. When they piled into the car to head inland, they realized they were getting nowhere and turned around.

They braved the storm at home, and an idea for a business was born.

"I said, 'There's got to be a better way,' " Rems said.

HelpJet, which charges adults a $500 annual membership fee, subcontracts flights on 30-passenger Dornier 328 turboprop planes. The service updates members as a storm nears and flights typically can continue running until the day it hits. Flights go to Atlanta, Charlotte and Nashville and HelpJet arranges accommodations, other transportation and anything else the member might request.

The flights - from West Palm Beach, Miami, Orlando, Tampa and four other Florida cities - cost about $1,850 to $1,950 per person roundtrip and small pets can be brought aboard free. Rems calls it a relative bargain, given the scarcity of available commercial airline seats as a storm looms and the cost of chartering one's own plane.

So far, only about two dozen people have signed up for HelpJet, though the company has not yet begun its marketing push, which will include mass mailings and possibly radio ads.

A stack of sleek brochures are set on a table in Rems' office, asking the reader to "imagine turning a disaster into a holiday." He says he ultimately hopes to sign up 1,000 people.

HelpJet has partnered with Starwood Hotels & Resorts to offer rooms to evacuees, from modest under-$100 choices to luxury suites for those, as Rems says, who choose to "turn a nightmare into a vacation."

If all of this talk of comfort for some as death and destruction could be happening elsewhere makes someone squeamish, Rems notes this: HelpJet travelers will vacate commercial airline seats, which could make it easier for an average evacuee to snag one, and the service will offer free or discounted flights for utility workers, the media, doctors and others integral to poststorm operations.

Sarena Morello, a Delray Beach psychotherapist, was the first to write a check to HelpJet for her and her 24-year-old daughter. After 28 years in South Florida, she felt she couldn't weather another hurricane.

Morello said the price of the service was not inconsequential to her, but that she didn't think twice.

"I never wrote a check with such freedom," she said.

[Last modified September 15, 2006, 21:14:56]

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