Unwanted donations are 'second disaster'

BY SUSAN KIM | Baltimore, MD | April 5, 1999

"Twelve tractor-trailer loads of clothes in three months." That's an all-too-recent memory for Rev. Bill Shupe, chair of the Guadelupe Valley Ministerial Alliance in southwest Texas.

After floods ravaged his town last October, "we made the mistake of initially requesting clothing before we were warned by Church World Service, FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), and the Red Cross not to do so."

"Believe it or not, we made the clothing request for only two days! By the third day, we started announcing 'no more clothes' on the radio, in the newspaper, wherever we could," he said.

Still, the clothes kept coming. "We did a lot of sorting and repacking. We had to find other agencies -- the Salvation Army, Goodwill -- to take them. And we sent away one whole truckload that was simply unusable."

Shupe also remembers receiving donations of small appliances with missing parts, among them a cappuccino maker with the custom-fitted glass pitcher missing. When he finally closed the 25,000-square-foot warehouse in which the first donations were stored, he also packed up 20 boxes of plastic souvenir cups - and sent them off to the Salvation Army as well.

No wonder denominational and governmental relief offices often call the influx of clothing donations and other inappropriate items "the second disaster."

Some people send clothing or other items rather than cash because they are afraid the cash might not get to the right place, or get used up in administrative costs. That is actually more likely to be the fate of many material donations.

Shupe's dilemma is far from unique. After almost any disaster -- including those as recent as hurricanes Georges and Mitch -- disaster response experts have stories of inappropriate donations. Shortly after Hurricane Mitch hit the Honduras, 1,200 containers appeared in the Port of Cortez that were labeled simply 'Humanitarian Relief.'

"The boxes apparently contained clothes mixed with food -- much of it spoiled," said Bev Abma, disaster response administrator for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee. Fleas, mites or mildew on even a few pieces of clothing can render an entire shipment useless.

"There were also goods donated for which instructions were written entirely in English, size 13 boots, and Christmas sweatshirts -- all culturally inappropriate items," she said. "One organization wanted to send blankets. Really what we needed were sheets and mosquito nets. Also, did you know that mouthwash just isn't culturally recognized in many countries?"

What's inappropriate may not always be obvious -- but sometimes donations seem to belie common sense.

After a tornado in Spencer, SD, Gil Furst, director of Lutheran Disaster Response, visited a donations distribution center. "The whole town had been completely wiped out," he said. "There, hanging at the back of the room, were clothing donations. Among the items I saw hanging there -- amid the high-heeled shoes -- were a gold prom dress and a fake fur stole. Needless to say, no takers!"

Harry Noftsker, a FEMA disaster response representative, said that shoes tend to show up -- everywhere. "They're generally in a pile and are unsorted. They create a problem."

Noftsker also remembers more serious misdirected donations. "Perhaps the worst I ever heard about was blood products sent by Japan to the disaster operation in Mexico during their earthquake. By the time it made it through customs and to Mexico City, it was out of date," he said.

But for every 10 stories of inappropriate material donations, there are one or two stories of ones so successful they change the lives of disaster survivors. Shirley Norman, a disaster response consultant for Church World Service, remembers when a county in Kentucky was hit by a tornado several years ago.

"People were there on their church grounds giving out donations," she said. "The back of their church had been blown off and their pastor had died of a heart attack. I pulled up with about 300 new T-shirts donated by a printer in Pennsylvania."

"I said, 'I don't suppose you want any clothes,' and they said 'no,' but then I said, 'they're new,' and the leader got tears in her eyes and said, 'who would send us new stuff?' It turns out that they had been receiving donations that included bars of used motel soap," she said. The townspeople gave away T-shirts to all the disaster survivors, then sold the remainder for $5 each, with proceeds going toward disaster recovery.

Other than sheer luck, what's the key to avoiding the "second disaster" and getting appropriate donations? Verdie Tulpepper, a disaster consultant with Adventist Community Service, recently coordinated some successful donations collections after tornadoes swept through the southern United States.

"Educating the media about what's needed is vitally important," she said. "You need to issue a needs list immediately so that everyone is on the same page. Even then, if I hear about local donation drives going on, I call and ask if I can share my experience with them."

People who really want to help need to find out what is actually needed and how to send it. The Salvation Army, the American Red Cross and other relief agencies usually ask for specific items. If an item hasn't been requested, say disaster response officials, don't send it.

Ben Curran, a liaison to voluntary agencies for FEMA, said that pre-planning is usually behind successful donations. "We encourage all state emergency management officials to sit down with voluntary agencies and have a comprehensive plan in place before a disaster. Once you outline roles and responsibilities, you can respond more quickly, for example, issuing that needs list right away," he said.

Good information management is strongly associated with appropriate material donations, he added. "Get a toll free number out to the public, so they can call to find out what's needed. Issue press releases that educate reporters about specific needs. You have to be proactive. You have to have an ear tuned to different rumors, and reach out to ask people what they've been hearing. We like to call it 'donations intelligence.' "

There are several advantages to cash donations, he said. Cash can directly benefit survivors because it can meet specific needs, boost a local economy, and reach overseas locations more quickly. "Voluntary agencies need to crack the resistance people have to collecting cash. They feel it's easier to collect the goods. But people could get just as enthusiastic about, say, a benefit event rather than getting involved in collecting and sorting."

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