Bahamas relief is underway. How can it avoid ‘logistical nightmares’ of disasters past?

When disasters strike, the natural reaction for many people is to reach into their pockets or head to the store.

But without proper planning or research, the goodwill of everyday citizens can turn sour, as made evident by natural disasters in recent history.

In 2017, 20,000 donated pallets of bottled water were left on a Ceiba, Puerto Rico, airstrip after Hurricane Maria blew through the U.S. territory, killing an estimated 3,000 people. When a photo of the bottles surfaced a year later by CBS News, the image shocked those who spent time and resources donating.

The water had been sitting so long that it eventually became too contaminated to drink.

At an elections office in San Juan, at least 10 trailers full of donated food, water and baby supplies were broken open and became infested by rats. Radio Isla, a local radio station, reported then that the goods donated by private entities and nonprofit groups were supposed to be collected at the offices and then distributed by the National Guard. But the delivery never happened, and the National Guard admitted that the unused materials sat for over a year while an additional 1,427 victims died in the months after the storm.

The Department of Homeland Security, which administers FEMA, admitted that the hundreds of refrigerated shipping containers full of necessary supplies sat idle because of issues getting the donations off the port and to the people who need it.

After a lethal earthquake killed more than 200,000 people in Haiti in 2010, a similar issue occurred.

The influx of goods clogged precious dock space that could have been made available for other aid vessels, and critical supplies went undistributed or stolen. The Guardian reported then that confusion over who was running the relief efforts on the island caused chaos and effectively cost lives.

“You have the United Nations saying we’re in control of food distribution but the United Nations is not taking the pro-active role that they should be taking,” John O’Shea, head of the Irish medical charity, Goal, told the Guardian shortly after the earthquake in 2010.

An avalanche of well-intentioned giving flowed into Haiti, but gave aid workers headaches in the way the goods were loosely packed and disorganized. Some workers recall donations of fur coats, golf clubs and even Manolo Blahnik stilettos.

“What were we going to do, pick away the concrete with a high heel?” said Albert Gomez, who helps run Third Wave Volunteers, a world aid group founded by his wife, Alison Thompson. The couple was on the ground in Haiti as chaos surrounding aid donations ensued. “There was a disconnected reality.”

Canned food drives may pop up in local businesses, and local fire stations start to fill with diapers, hygiene kits and cases of bottled water.

BahamasDonation four mhd js
People leave off donations for Hurricane Dorian relief at Christ Episcopal Church in Coconut Grove on September 3, 2019, in Miami, Florida. The Bahamian community has more than 100-year-old roots to Coconut Grove. Jose Sepulveda

Turns out, getting those altruistic donations from Point A to Point B is more complicated than it seems, and often sets up stumbling blocks that may result in wasted resources. In the wake of Hurricane Dorian, aid workers and government officials warn that without care and supervision, the benevolent efforts of good Samaritans may go to waste or even be harmful to recovery.

Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis asked those who want to help “to work with reputable charities with proven records. Donate your time, talents and resources to their relief efforts and this will make a big difference.” NEMA — the Bahamas’ National Emergency Management Agency — is the best agency for volunteers to coordinate with, he said Tuesday. Established charities not on the registered list can contact NEMA at 242-376-6362 to coordinate.

“This is vital to ensure that relief supplies and aid are delivered as effectively as possible and to ensure those supplies get to those in need as timely as possible,” he said.

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The warnings echo of disasters past, where the wrong items were donated or worse, resources were donated to charities that had no real plan for execution.

In Miami-Dade County and in collection points across the state, the donation lists circulated and up popped more piles of hurricane supplies, many of them leftover from Floridians on the Eastern Seaboard who prepared for a storm that never struck the coast directly.

While Miami-Dade administrators on Tuesday began setting up a supply operation for what’s expected to be the largest relief effort in the county since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, aid workers feared that the sheer amount of goods would require detailed logistics the county hadn’t planned for.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s aides told a Herald reporter that they didn’t yet know when or how the supplies would get to the Bahamas, but that those details should be known once Dorian clears the islands and relief agencies determine whether ports and airfields are operational.

“We have a strong bond with our brothers and sisters in the Bahamian chain of islands,” Gimenez said in a press conference. “Many moved here a century ago to help build Miami.”

Because so many people brought donations, the county’s purchasing department had to station a worker to direct traffic at a Doral warehouse accepting donations for Dorian relief on Tuesday, one of four drop-off locations announced by Miami-Dade that day.

“We’ve got 30 cases of water. And about 100 medical kits,” said Ricky Dominguez, a 20-year-old game developer from Homestead, who pulled up in a pickup truck with his mother, Cruz Dominguez. They bought about $800 worth of supplies from BJ’s, he said. “We just wanted to help our neighbors,” he said.

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County workers spent the day stacking an untold amount of water bottles, diapers, canned goods, toiletries and other supplies requested by the Bahamas. They’ll eventually head for a much larger warehouse at the Youth Fair complex in West Dade, which has agreed to serve as the main supply hub for the Miami-to-the-Bahamas relief route.

There, the nonprofit that runs the county-owned fairgrounds was preparing to dedicate an 80,000-square-foot exhibition hall for Dorian supplies, including space for donations to be sorted so that water, diapers, medicine and other categories of relief material could arrive ready for delivery in the Bahamas.

Gimenez said the Bahamian government asked his administration to establish a single supply depot to hold donations from the dozens of drop-off spots and supply drives announced over the last 48 hours.

Frank Rollason, the county’s emergency director, said he was surprised at the quick pace of donations for Dorian.

“There seems to be a groundswell from the public for this,” he said. “The people identify with the countries that are part of your community.”

Getting all those items to the Bahamas will be a complicated task, and will take lots of coordinating in order to be effective. Oftentimes, coordinating with local organizations is the best way to ensure goods get delivered to the right people. The Red Cross said Wednesday that it doesn’t have the capacity to handle relief supplies, and is only accepting cash donations.

Marlon Johnson, acting financial secretary for the Bahamas, said the government doesn’t want to turn away help, but that charities who plan on donating goods should gain recognition by NEMA first.

“When you have a mammoth distribution exercise happening, it’s much easier to do if [people] come to a focal point to get it done,” he said.

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Tom Babington, a spokesman for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), agreed, and said decades of experience in disaster relief and recovery have proven that the most effective means to help people affected by disaster is via cash donations to reputable organizations on the ground.

“These groups work closely with affected communities and know what people need and how to strengthen recovery efforts,” he wrote in an email. “Unlike material donations, cash involves no transportation costs, shipping delays, or customs fees. It also enables relief organizations to spend more time providing aid by spending less time managing goods.”

The city of Miami is sending its first wave of supplies via Norwegian Cruise Line, which will be connected with NEMA in Nassau. The local emergency response will distribute items to battered, hard-to-reach places like Marsh Harbour and Grand Bahama.

“The problem in Puerto Rico was getting stuff out,” Sen. Rick Scott said at a press conference in Miami Wednesday. “The stuff got tied up at a port in San Juan and we couldn’t get it out. They’ll have a better plan this time.”

After Hurricane Dorian devastated neighborhoods on Grand Bahama, disaster relief organizations rushed to bring in food and medicine. Ramon Espinosa AP

Natascha Otero-Santiago, a Puerto Rico native and organizer who helped victims after Hurricane Maria, said the issues that arose after the storm can be traced to disorganized efforts by stateside groups. She uses a simple can of tuna as an example of how complicated donating physical goods can be.

She says do-gooders may show up with a can of tuna to donate, but that can needs to be put in a box, and closed with tape alongside other boxes of food in a weight that can be shipped. There needs to be a forklift to carry all of the goods and put them together into a shipping container or boxes for an airplane. Then the box must be picked up and taken away.

“You want to feel helpful, but sometimes it’s very difficult to carry that one can of tuna,” she said.

Otero-Santiago, who was on the ground in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, said she saw firsthand how hard it was to send even seemingly innocent cases of water, which are heavy and hard to send in bulk through smaller groups that lack the infrastructure of a larger operation.

Piecemeal efforts are “highly inefficient,” said Nancy Rosado, an Orlando community organizer and retired first responder. Rosado played an instrumental role in Puerto Rico’s recovery after Maria, and said a coordinated effort is what it takes to get every victim the supplies he or she needs.

With major ports of entry in the Bahamas like Marsh Harbour badly damaged by the storm, there may be limited infrastructure in place to process incoming cargo, which requires attention and planning.

“The thing that went left of center with Maria was if you just sent stuff, you trusted that the government was going to get it done a certain way,” she said. “But the peanut butter doesn’t always make it all the way to the outer edges.”

Robert Asencio, a former state representative who headed Miami-Dade County’s committee for Hurricane Maria relief, said one of his key issues with relief response to Maria was the slow action on the part of the government.

He said community outreach “reaffirmed humanity” and that coordinated efforts of everyday people helped fill voids left by the government.

However, it was that void that left Asencio scratching his head.

“What I saw was a true lack of unified command,” he said. “I hope it’s going to be different in the Bahamas. … That lack of process resulted in finding all those cases of water in a field, gone to waste. People died because they didn’t have the appropriate attention.”

Supplies were left behind stateside, too. After Maria, a rat infestation closed down a government office in Kissimmee that was storing donations destined for the U.S. territory. The office of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration told the Orlando Sentinel then that it “does not have the budget to finance the shipping costs.”

Ascencio said instances like that happened because the supplies didn’t have a “mission assignment” for collection on the island.

“I found that to be somewhat of an obstacle,” he added.

Broward County state Rep. Shevrin Jones, who has fronted a donation drive out of his father’s church in Pembroke Park, said he is working directly with Bahamian Consul General Linda Mackey to get the goods to the islands in need.

“Our biggest thing was to work directly through the consul general’s office to make sure that the things that were needed not only get to the right people but also get to them in a way where it’s not sitting inside warehouses,” Jones said. “I’m familiar with how things happened with Haiti and other relief.”

Herald staff writers Doug Hanks and Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.

Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.