Haiti Relief Supplies Stall in Web of Logistics

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Cases of bottled water and cardboard boxes full of blue jeans, diapers and cans of tuna are piled several feet high in Ruth Estriplet's living room. The charity worker doesn't want to stack anything above her head so that she can see what's in the boxes.

What she can't see is a way to get all the items to Haiti.

More than three weeks after the earthquake, donated goods are accumulating at small charities, sitting in shipping limbo because of costs and a complex web of transportation logistics. The heaps of donations are evidence that many people ignored the advice to just give cash.

Estriplet and other charities opted to collect items because it has a more personal touch. She is specifically gathering donations for her hometown of Carrefour, a devastated suburb of Port-au-Prince. But it's not clear how she's going to get the goods there.

"We're open to anyone who has an idea on how to do this, and we're taking any suggestions," said Estriplet.

Almost immediately after the quake hit, large organizations said money was the best way to help. It has never been easy to get supplies into Port-au-Prince, and the tremor has made things much worse.

Aid workers in Port-au-Prince have complained that red tape, transportation bottlenecks, corruption and a fear of violence has slowed the distribution of food, medicine and other supplies.

In Brooklyn, New York, pet groomer Perfect Paws is holding onto the sandals, baby aspirin and canned goods the business collected unless a traveling aid worker has room in a suitcase for them. The store posted a sign in a window soliciting donations, but will now sit on the items until the bottleneck eases, said owner Tom Vasquez.

Some charities have found ways around the logjam by piggybacking on a larger organization or sending shipments to other Haitian ports or the Dominican Republic. The Rev. Reginald Jean-Mary, pastor of Notre Dame d'Haiti in Miami, has given boxes of cooking oil, rice, water and beans to Food for the Poor, but each shipment costs the international relief charity $5,000 to transport to Haiti.

Cash donations buy much more, like flights into the Dominican Republic for doctors and nurses and trucks to drive over the border with stoves, cooking pots and ingredients for hot meals, Jean-Mary said.

"We plan on doing that more, until the ports can be open," he said. "The only way in I see right now is the Dominican Republic."

As of Wednesday, more than $644 million has been donated in the U.S. to major organizations engaged in Haiti relief efforts, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. More than a third of the money has gone to the American Red Cross.

Still, many Haitian-Americans say they want to make sure help gets directly to people who need it.

Asking just for cash can put off, for example, schoolchildren who want to send bandages to injured victims, said Hannah Belkovic of Massachusetts-based Partners in Development, which is working to get medical supplies and other in aid in Haiti.

"The connection is lost, somehow, in what they are actually participating in," she said.

The charity's staff stuff their suitcases with as many bandages, rolls of gauze and antibiotics as they can, while the bulk of their donated supplies await shipping.

Michelle Lacourciere, director of the San Francisco-based Sirona Cares Foundation, was collecting toothpaste, food, crutches, school supplies and travel-sized toiletries even before the earthquake struck. The items were supposed to ship out free through the Air Force, but the quake hit and now she's unsure exactly how she will get the more than 6,000 square feet ( of items to Haiti.

But she and the other charities are optimistic it will work out.

"I understand that no one else will take goods," Lacourciere said. "If I'm the only one who will take them, then I'm glad that I'm doing it."