With an estimated 300 tons of Hurricane Mitch relief supplies backed up around Los Angeles County, community groups issued an urgent appeal Friday for cash donations that can be more efficiently used to aid the needy in Central America.
In a mini-mall parking lot near downtown Los Angeles overflowing with pallets of donated food and water, officials announced a new fund-raising drive aimed at swiftly bringing medical supplies and staples to storm-ravaged villages.
"We need millions of dollars," said Jorge Jackson, a GTE vice president who is helping to lead the effort.
With much of the infrastructure destroyed in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, relief supplies are backing up at airports in Central America.
"They can't get goods off the tarmac," said Pedro Carrillo, field deputy to Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles).
Further hampering efforts in the Los Angeles region is a shortage of volunteers to collect, sort and package the materials that have already been gathered. Also, shipping heavy items like water and dried goods by truck and plane can cost as much as 10 times the value of donated products, officials said.
Under the new relief plan, the United Way/Help Central America Fund will use donated money to buy the most critically needed supplies--pharmaceuticals, blankets, dried beans--from Panama and neighboring areas closer to storm-ravaged Honduras, Jackson said.
The goods will be shipped overland to areas where clinics and food banks need to be resupplied, Jackson said.
Meanwhile, the effort will be stepped up to move existing supplies by donated transportation from Los Angeles to Central America, said Joseph Haggerty, head of the Los Angeles chapter of the United Way.
As television, especially Spanish-language stations, juxtaposes images of Honduran suffering and devastation with mountains of supplies stuck in local warehouses, many ask why government agencies are not using more of the military's airlift capacity.
"I'm very frustrated. Everybody's very frustrated, " said Carlos Vasquerano, who is helping to organize the Central American Emergency Relief Coalition. Federal, state and local elected officials are working on moving the cargo, he said, "but we don't see anything."
"We want to see National Guard cargo planes flying from Los Angeles to Central America."
State Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa said he has received assurances from the governor's office and U.S. Army Secretary Louis Caldera that every effort will be made to move the supplies.
Carrillo of Roybal-Allard's office said that an airlift is being coordinated by the federal government and that more than 60 relief missions have been flown in recent weeks. Five California National Guard cargo planes have been lent to the effort, and discussions are underway to increase the commitment, he said.
At the mini-mall at 6th Street and Rampart Boulevard, 15 tractor-trailers have been filled and moved on to an Army shipping center, said Fares Ennabe, a Honduran and owner of the shopping center-turned-collection center.
Several additional tons are stacked in a vacant storefront, the parking lot and even the sidewalk. "We don't know how long it's going to take" for the supplies to reach his homeland, Ennabe said.
In addition to cash, officials asked that any new donations of materials be limited to medical supplies, blankets, sheets and dried goods such as rice, beans and corn with expiration dates later than 1999.
Donations may be made by calling (800) 563-7117, or by delivering goods to the Bell Federal Supply Center, 5600 Rickenbacker Road, Bay 2D, Bell, CA 90201.