A second disaster in La Plata?

BY SUSAN KIM | LA PLATA | May 1, 2002

"Sometimes the clothes are really old. Some have bugs in them. Or they stink."

—Rev. Ted Gibbons

The tornado hit town, and then the clothes starting whirling in nearly as fast.

Volunteers working in The Peoples' Place in La Plata, MD -- the town's disaster response hub area -- were rapidly becoming obscured behind bags of used clothing mounding up around them Wednesday.

The Rev. Ted Gibbons, a volunteer from the Cornerstone Fellowship Church in Frederick, MD was hoisting and sorting, bag after bag. He said he'd seen, frankly, "some junk."

"Sometimes the clothes are really old. Some have bugs in them. Or they stink. I'd say about half the clothes are in that category."

Gibbons said he understood why people might donate clothes. Most times it's simply because they want to help. "I understand because I did the same thing. I thought, 'I have a lot of old clothes.' But then I thought, 'no, I should be giving my best.' "

Tomi Finkle, a Charles county employee who was managing material donations Wednesday, acknowledged they'd probably collected enough clothes. "I would say we have enough clothes and bedding," she said. "We have more coming in than going out."

Finkle's acknowledgement was an understatement since by Wednesday afternoon only one family had come by the tent in need of clothing.

And she's not expecting too many more. "In this town everybody knows everybody. We have the ability here to take care of our own.

"We don't have volunteers who can handle a large influx," she added. "We had hundreds of people volunteer Monday, and it's down to dozens of volunteers today."

By Wednesday afternoon Finkle was still making a request for disposable diapers -- another donated item that, in the world of disaster response, tends to arrive in unmanageable amounts.

By Wednesday afternoon there was an entire infant clothing section piling up. Of the hundred homes destroyed in La Plata -- a town of some 6,500 -- how many infants were affected by the storm and how many of those need clothes? Nobody seemed to know.

"And people might need toiletries and toothbrushes," offered Gibbons, "but I'm not sure."

There were winter clothes that arrived just in time for summer, some washed, some not, some in plastic bags, some in brown paper bags, some just loaded right out of somebody's trunk onto the grass.

And the clothing pile Wednesday crept upward and outward until it outgrew the tent behind it. Finkle and others began to make plans for the rain that was coming Wednesday night. "We've got trailers on their way to store the clothes. They're stuck in traffic," she said.

When a monster F5 tornado struck Sunday evening, at least some state and county officials did include clothing among donations they were requesting.

By Wednesday afternoon, Maryland's response officials began to realize they could be looking at what many experienced responders call "the second disaster." It's when an influx of used clothing -- and other donations that are well-intended but simply not needed -- overtakes the ability of volunteers to handle it.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in Florida, used clothing came in such arduous amounts it was stored in tractor trailers, eventually got damp and mildewed, and had to be burned.

And after 1999's Hurricane Floyd a tiny rural town in North Carolina received nearly 1,000 pairs of shoes -- enough for every person to have six pairs.

And after the terrorist attacks in New York City, responders became frustrated when thousands of used teddy bears arrived by the truckload.

This week in La Plata, response officials were delicately considering their dilemma of how to tell the public to stop without making donors angry.

"At what point are we going to get beyond what we need?" asked Don Keldsen, acting director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. "At some point we've got to be careful."

At least some response leaders agreed that point is -- right now.

Because even the dogs in La Plata already had too much of a good thing -- dog food, said Joanna Snow of the Tri-County Animal Shelter. What the shelter really needs is cash, she added.

Tom Davies, federal coordinating officer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, echoed that sentiment. "Cash contributions are much better. Otherwise we may end up with stuff not used."

"People's needs can change every day in the wake of a disaster," said Marsha Tidler of Catholic Charities. "That's why cash donations help us the most."

Catholic Charities was telling people who want to donate clothes to go through the county's emergency operations center -- or Finkle's tent. As for food -- another popular item to donate that quickly overwhelms volunteers -- Tidler said Catholic Charities was working with the Southern Maryland Food Bank, so any food donations should go there.

As Adventist Community Service -- a group nationally known for accurately communicating to the public what's needed and then managing the goods in local warehouses -- arrives on the scene, things are bound to get better.

Until then, response leaders agreed that cash is the best way to help. "Monetary donations are always welcome," said The Salvation Army's Andrew Dake. "The Salvation Army is requesting that anyone who must donate goods focus on shovels, rakes, chainsaws, small generators, 30-gallon storage bins, and tarps."

In other words, not clothes.

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