CHARLESTON - AmeriCorps volunteer Aaron Heath says the expressions on the faces of people returning from the Haiti earthquake zone tell their story.
"It feels like they have a sense of relief that they got out of there safely," Heath said Monday, describing the scene at Charleston International Airport. "All of them have the biggest smiles."
Since Thursday, nearly 450 people have returned to the United States through Charleston, taking advantage of last week's declaration that the airport is an entry hub for Americans and Haitian-born U.S. citizens and their families to return on empty military cargo planes.
Heath, whose job included getting coats and toiletries for the returnees, was on hand Sunday for the biggest planeload so far, about 70 people. Groups of missionaries, relief workers, doctors and victims who told of being trapped in rubble have all touched down en route to other parts of the country.
The pace has ebbed and flowed, with some planes arriving filled, with others carrying only a handful of people. One of Monday's two flights landed with only five passengers.
State officials, though, say the drop should not be viewed as a signal that interest is tapering. "These are flights of opportunity," said Derrec Becker, public information coordinator for the S.C. Emergency Management Division, which is helping direct the effort. "We could get 75 tomorrow. We just don't know."
Charleston will be used at least until commercial flights restart out of the Port-au-Prince airport, which has been dedicated solely to relief efforts.
Returnees coming to Charleston have needed little medical attention. One person was taken to a local hospital after suffering a migraine headache.
Almost everyone else is stable and healthy, Becker said. "These are people able to walk and talk," he said.
Carolina Lowcountry Red Cross CEO Louise Welch said 4,262 snacks and beverages have been served, along with 271 comfort kits of toiletries and 519 Red Cross blankets, by 57 staff and volunteers.
The agency still is seeking donations to help pay for these and other services related to the Haiti earthquake.
On Monday, the Neighborhood Dining Group, which includes McCrady's, Queen Anne's Revenge and The Buccaneer restaurants, announced it had helped raise $24,000 through fundraising and matching donations by the ownership group.
Welch said it was the most money raised so far at an event in Charleston for the relief effort.
Red Cross volunteer Joyce Gambrell of North Charleston, who worked shifts Saturday and Sunday, said the returnees she helped seemed grateful for the hospitality. Like other travelers, though, some were frustrated that the mid-Atlantic record snowstorm had snarled connecting flights.
"You could tell they had been through quite a lot, but I think you have to give them credit," she said. "They were glad to be back in the U.S. so they could get a break."
Officials had no prediction of how many flights carrying civilians are expected in today or the rest of the week.