Haiti aid's stormy path

(This story was originally published September 14, 2008.)

Thomas Sagaser, four feet eight inches of earnest altruism, stands outside his school with a glass jar and a sign that says, "Please help."

The fifth-grader spends his free time telling his friends and his Boy Scout troop about the devastation wrought by back-to-back storms in the Caribbean.

"They were, like, really freaked out, " said Thomas, 10, a student at Mary Help of Christians Catholic School in Parkland. "Now, all they want to do is help."

Thomas moved quickly in his efforts to gather money and bags of clothes and food for the Catholic church's efforts to help the afflicted, but the aid he collects may not. The path from his jar and his collected goods to the hands of hurricane victims in the Caribbean is often fraught with obstacles on both ends of the journey.

The two disaster-ravaged countries present very different challenges.

The long, confrontational history between Cuba and the United States creates a uniquely delicate political dynamic, although the distribution of aid is generally well run once it arrives on the island. With Haiti, the biggest problems are shipping delays and roads and bridges now swept away by flooding.

With Haiti, it often takes five weeks or more for an aid shipment to reach those who need it. With Cuba, once the bureaucratic hurdles are cleared, it can take as little as five days.

The crisis in the Caribbean has hit a nerve in South Florida, where many have ties to the countries that are just now beginning what promises to be a years-long process of recovery. The outpouring has drawn a cross-section of South Florida society, with everyone from the Miami-Dade state attorney's office to a South Florida Muslim group pitching in.

Many were moved by the images of dead children and crushed homes.

Linda Mae Stubbs, a first-time donor from the Bahamas, was so shocked by what she saw that she hurried to Notre Dame D'Haiti church in Little Haiti to drop off bags of water, shoes, and clothes once worn by her and her husband.

"I feel sorry for the people over there, " said Stubbs, 60, of North Miami.

But donors like Stubbs rarely understand the complicated and time-consuming process of providing relief.

"Everybody's gathering stuff and putting it in boxes and assuming everything will go well, " said Carolyn Rose-Avila, a former relief worker for World Vision, which has offices in Washington, D.C. "You have to have distribution channels that work."


Sending goods to Haiti without the proper paperwork or someone on the other end to pick it up can mean months in storage -- and thousands of dollars in private storage fees.

Groups such as World Vision send supplies before the hurricane season starts in anticipation of disasters that might require an immediate response.

One bottleneck is dealing with Haitian ports. Cross International, a Christian relief agency in Pompano Beach, said a container can sit in a Haitian port for more than three weeks before it clears customs -- an eternity in the disaster situation now facing the impoverished Caribbean nation.

In some cases, the container never leaves the port.

One South Florida activist recalled how he helped fill a container to send to the northwestern city of Gonaives in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Jeanne in 2004 -- yet another tempest that heaped havoc on the seaside city, leaving 3,000 dead.

"It sat in the port, rotting, " said the activist, Tony Jeanthenor of Miami. "I think it lingered forever and ever."

Haitian officials say they are working to streamline the customs process -- for instance, allowing a three-month suspension of port taxes on certain hurricane-related supplies. They say delays can stem from shippers failing to submit the proper paperwork.

Beyond the difficulties with the ports, transportation also presents a challenge.

The World Food Program, for example, was still struggling with logistical delays while trying to move thousands of pounds of food from Port-au-Prince to storm victims outside the capital.

When a Florida group contacted the World Food Program to offer 4,000 hot meals for Gonaives, the agency had to decide which was better: providing 4,000 people with hot meals or 15,000 people with bags of rice, beans and cooking oil.

"We are unable to say no to everybody, but eventually we will have to because it's a hindrance on our operation, " said the World Food Program's Riad Lodhi. "It's difficult to explain to people the logistical constraints. If we have to choose between sending food for 4,000 people and 15,000, obviously we prefer 15,000."


Moving through the Haitian countryside presents added hardships.

Recently, shipments were delayed because officials were trying to figure out which of the eight collapsed bridges to replace with a temporary 100-foot bridge provided by the United Nations.

Suzanne Brooks, director of the Center for International Disaster in Haiti, said the impassable roads and damaged ports are among the reasons her group encourages those wishing to help "to select one of the many experienced relief agencies on the ground in Haiti and make a monetary donation."


With Cuba, the complications in getting aid to the affected come on the front end, with the sometimes complex process of securing permission to send supplies or money to the communist country. Because of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, aid organizations must be licensed to send money or goods or to travel to the island.

Many organizations were turned down in the past. Others have fought legal battles to keep licenses that the United States declined to renew.

"This administration has put every obstacle it can in front of people like me, " said Eddie Levy of Jewish Solidarity in Miami, which is licensed to send cash donations and powdered milk to the Sephardic Jewish community in Havana.

As damage estimates continue to mount in Cuba, the U.S. government has responded with expedited licenses for agencies that provide humanitarian aid. Several local groups reported getting new licenses in recent days at a faster pace than usual.

"We are turning around license applications in record time, sometimes the same day, sometimes within 24 hours of receiving them, " Treasury spokesman Andrew DeSouza wrote in an e-mail.

The U.S. government also increased the amount of cash that groups with existing authorizations could send to Cuban storm victims.

Despite those changes, the embargo can spook individuals who are otherwise inclined to help.

Tom Cooper, of South Florida's Gulfstream Air, has agreed to help Jewish Solidarity and another local charity take food and powdered milk to Cuba. His company operates daily charter flights to the island, but is uncertain about taking relief shipments. His lawyers are checking on whether the company is allowed to deliver aid supplies.

Even with the new U.S. measures in response to the storms, Cooper thinks the United States should do more.


"It wouldn't take much for our government to send a team of people to Miami to monitor what people are sending, " Cooper said. "Instead, we're sitting up here pushing papers back and forth . . . and meanwhile, people are hungry there."

Several aid groups say that once aid reaches Cuba, it moves through a relatively swift distribution system.

Catholic Charities, for example, is using local donations to purchase 40,000 pounds of beans, rice and canned goods for the island. The goods are turned over to Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. church's international relief and development arm. That agency has a license to ship humanitarian items, and is currently preparing at least five containers for Cuba.

In Havana, workers from Caritas Cuba, a charity church branch, will meet the shipment when it arrives. Government trucks distribute the aid.

"Things have gone relatively smoothly as long as we inform the government we are coming, " said Lynn Renner, Catholic Relief Services' Caribbean representative. "The government has assured Caritas that everything that comes into the country will be distributed immediately on a fast track . . . because the needs are tremendous right now."

Miami Herald staff writer Erika Beras contributed to this report.