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Relief groups emphasize Haiti's No. 1 need: cash

St. Petersburg retiree Chris Giblin says she is trying to help Haiti the best way she can. The former University of South Florida professor has a friend with thousands of water-purification systems in Dallas, ready to be shipped to Florida in trucks.

But how to get them to Haiti?

"I'm ready to stand on the runway at the Clearwater airport and hold up a banner," Giblin said. "People are dying because they have no drinking water, and these systems will help."

Giblin's frustration is met with the standard line from most major relief organizations: Please stop donating items.

At a time when many Americans are short on cash, the instinct for many is to give what they can — clothing, canned goods, over-the-counter medicine and other essential supplies. But with a logjam of planes, ships and helicopters trying to get items to Haiti, such bulky shipments are creating a logistical mess.

"The ports and the airports are being filled with items that are of no use," said Steve McAndrew, an American Red Cross relief specialist stationed in Haiti. "People have been sending in containers of only left-foot shoes and food that's out of date. … These things are actually blocking what we're trying to get in here."

At Port-au-Prince's Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport, a nearby field has become a holding area for supplies flown in from around the world. Some are for rescue workers staying in Haiti; others are intended for earthquake victims but either do not have distribution arrangements or are not essential in the early stages of a disaster.

As with most disasters, the mantra among major relief organizations is the same: If you really want to help, give cash.

"I know what it sounds like when we say financial contributions are the best," said Alex Amparo, emergency management director for Volunteer Florida. "But it's important for people to realize that, particularly for situations like a major earthquake or hurricane, established agencies can best determine what to collect and how to get it there."

Yet people tend to want to help on a more personal level and feel better about their contribution when they know exactly how it will be used.

A New Mexico religious group recently shipped 600 solar-powered audio Bibles to Haiti. And the Convoy in Hope of Illinois encouraged schoolchildren throughout the state to assemble 100,000 hygiene kits with toothpaste and soap for Haitian children, according to the Springfield News-Leader.

While acts like these are well-meaning, the Red Cross urges people to stop sending anything that requires shipping, at least for now.

"We understand that people want to send items, and it breaks our hearts to tell them not to," said Janet McGuire, Red Cross disaster communication director. "But those items are just sitting on a runway. Even our own planes are backlogged."

As for Giblin's quest — the bucket-sized, 5.6-pound water purifiers being assembled by a group called Texas Baptist Men — no one argues that clean water is important. McGuire commended Giblin on her goal but said if people want to send such items, they need to arrange for shipping and someone in Haiti to distribute them. (Giblin said members of the Texas Baptist group in Haiti are poised to receive the purifiers.)

From Haiti, McAndrew of the Red Cross still wants to hammer home the plea for money.

"When we ask the Haitian people, 'What do you need?' we're hearing, 'We want to get back to work and we want our dignity back,' " he said. "Cash is the most efficient way to make this happen."

Besides cash, McAndrew could think of only one other thing that would be useful to him and other Red Cross workers.

"The real thing I need is time," he said. "If you can figure out some way to donate that, that would be wonderful."

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

>>Fast facts

How to help if you can't give cash

Major relief organizations urge people to donate cash instead of items to Haiti. But if you're short on cash, here are three tips:

Reach out to an established charity that has long-standing ties to Haiti. Numerous organizations in Florida have been transporting aid to Haiti for years. They will be better equipped to make shipments and may understand the needs of the people better than new or independent volunteer groups. Go to charitynavigator.org for a list.

Check out solicitations on aidmatrix.org/haiti. The site allows nongovernment organizations to request specific items, and potential donors can search for items by clicking on "in-kind donation." Among the requests are mosquito nets, medical supplies and transportation to Haiti.

Wait. Haiti will need help rebuilding for months to come. Volunteers and donations will have an easier time getting there after the initial phase of disaster relief.

Relief groups emphasize Haiti's No. 1 need: cash 01/26/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 11:28pm]
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