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Donors’ ‘Stuff’ Smothers Relief

Times Staff Writer

Relief workers have a message for the American people, whose generosity after Hurricane Katrina has been unprecedented:

Thanks, you’re the best. But the 25,000 pounds of pepper jack cheese were a bit much. Don’t send any more secondhand clothes. And enough already with the bottled water.

“We’ve got to stop the flow of water,” said Charlene Sargent, who runs the Seventh-day Adventist warehouse here that is the official receiving point for donated goods from across the country.

Pallets of Propel, Dasani, Crystal Geyser, Deer Park and Dominion already were stacked high in the warehouse when a state official called to say there were eight truckloads of water that couldn’t find a home. Could Sargent take them?

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“We’ve gotten water, water and more water,” she said.

As for used clothes, “If you took everything we got this weekend and put it in New Orleans, it would raise the elevation so it wouldn’t flood again,” Sargent said. “We don’t want any more used clothes. No one does.”

Just because Americans are giving enthusiastically doesn’t mean they’re giving appropriately, or that their largesse is always eagerly received.

Those are lessons Santa Monica entrepreneur Tom Browne has come to understand.

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Browne was visiting in New Orleans, where he was born and raised, until the day before Katrina hit. After the levees broke -- three of his relatives’ five houses were inundated -- he decided to put some material together for his family.

Then he figured he’d take some stuff for strangers too. He e-mailed a friend, who e-mailed a friend, who posted a request for donations on the Internet.

What started as a small, private mission became a public event, an avalanche not just of packaged food and water but clothing, camping equipment, personal hygiene products and air mattresses -- as well as thigh-high gold lame boots, a talking President Bush doll, a Santa suit, Halloween costumes and lots of high-heeled shoes.

“People were cleaning out their garages” said Browne, 49. “At a certain point, I started thinking: ‘Enough is enough.’ ”

By Labor Day, five 53-foot-long tractor-trailers were full. Equipped with two drivers each, they rolled out to provide succor to the homeless, the ill, the miserable of Louisiana.

Before leaving Santa Monica, Browne made arrangements with authorities in Slidell, a city northeast of New Orleans, to take the donations. But when the convoy arrived, officials in the storm-damaged community said they knew nothing about it.

Browne refused to leave until he could find a place for the goods. A friend who was on the trip, Pete Imirie, went off to seek a recipient. “I drove to three schools in the area that were doing disaster relief,” Imirie said. “I went up to the Red Cross and said: ‘I have a tractor-trailer that needs to be unloaded.’ They said: ‘Not our department.’ ”

Aid officials say things work much better when donations move through organized channels. At least, they say, someone should be alerted that the material is coming. At the New Iberia warehouse, that isn’t happening yet. Trucks show up randomly, at all hours.

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Some of the donations are organized pallets of food -- 7-pound cans of Del Monte Fruit Cocktail, 6-pound cans of Del Monte corn.

But about 25% of the material is used clothes, often in black plastic trash bags. These are shunted aside in an ever-swelling pile. They’ll get somewhere, but not soon.

Aid distributors say they don’t have the time or the staff to sort used clothing, and that it’s often worn or even unclean. There’s also, they add, a moral component: Just because someone is homeless doesn’t mean they should be wearing hand-me-downs.

Warehouse manager Sargent -- in private life a cardiovascular technologist in Bakersfield -- distinguishes between “stuff” and “goods.”

“A big plastic bag with things thrown in it is stuff,” she said. “We get clogged up with stuff we don’t need instead of goods we do.”

Other volunteers concurred. “No more unsorted clothes!” pleaded Bruce LeBlanc, a volunteer at the Cajundome in Lafayette, La., which is serving as a temporary home for displaced people. “We don’t have the facilities to manage it.”

Judi Sonnier, another Cajundome volunteer, added another admonition -- one that the generous-but-svelte in other parts of the country might forget: This is fried-food country. “If you send new clothes, send them in plus sizes,” Sonnier said.

Donated clothing is often a problem in disaster areas. After Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, many of the clothes were left outdoors to rot, according to news reports at the time. The wrong kinds of contributions also came in Andrew’s wake, including 60,000 condoms, diet shake meals and six pallets of fortified “Mad Dog” wine.

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There was also way too much water.

In this disaster, the images of thirsty people in a sunken city inspired donations. But by the time the water got here, those victims had been evacuated.

One problem with water is that it is heavy, which means it’s expensive to ship. That money, aid organizers say, can be put to better uses.

Browne, sitting Sunday afternoon in a friend-of-a-friend’s fishing camp in the Bayou hamlet of Stephensville, La., said people realize this intellectually, but it doesn’t matter.

“I know why the Red Cross wants money -- it’s easier to move,” he said. “But people like their giving to be something they can see.”

Authorities in Slidell helped him find two charities willing to take two truckloads each, but the reception was somewhat grudging. That left one unwanted trailer. In desperation, Browne was planning to take it to the Houston Astrodome.

Then Imirie called a friend, Scott Green, who runs a company in Morgan City, La., that rents tanks to the offshore oil industry. He called a friend of his, Melvin Stewart, who arranged for the Good Hope Baptist Church in Patterson, La., to take the donations.

“I saw more appreciation here than Slidell,” said Imirie. “I felt good for the first time.”

Browne nursed a can of Budweiser, holding his head in his hands.

Next time a big disaster happens, he said, “I’m writing a check to the Red Cross for $40 and sleeping good.”

He doesn’t mean it. Actually, he’s already planning another convoy. This time, he said, he’s going to call local communities in Louisiana -- many of them are full of evacuees -- and ask what they want first.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

How to help

The following agencies are among those providing assistance to hurricane victims:

* Adventist Community Services, (800) 381-7171

* American Red Cross, (800) HELP NOW (435-7669) English, (800) 257-7575 Spanish

* America’s Second Harvest, (800) 771-2303

* Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, www.bushclintonkatrinafund.org

* Catholic Charities USA, (800) 919-9338

* Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, (800) 848-5818

* Church of Scientology, (800) 435-7498, www.volunteerministers.org

* Church World Service, (800) 297-1516

* Convoy of Hope, (417) 823-8998

* Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, (800) 638-3522

* Humane Society of the United States, (888) 259-5431; (800) HUMANE1 (486-2631)

* International Medical Corps, (800) 481-4462, www.imcworldwide.org

* Jewish Federation, (323) 761-8200

* Mennonite Disaster Service, (717) 859-2210

* Operation USA, (800) 678-7255

* Salvation Army, (800) SAL-ARMY (725-2769)

* United Methodist Committee on Relief, (800) 554-8583

* World Relief, (800) 535-5433

Source: Associated Press

Times staff writers Meg James and Myron Levin in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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