The Yves St. Laurent and Tommy Hilfiger labels may be phony, but the thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims getting knockoff items seized by federal customs officials probably don't mind.At first that story made me smile. I could picture some frustrated worker at Customs, someone whose responsibilities had nothing at all to do with disaster relief, watching hour after hour of CNN until it hit them: we've got things those people could use. Disaster relief isn't supposed to be our mission, but it could be.
Displaced survivors in the Houston Astrodome can choose from counterfeit and abandoned clothing, toys, and even dog food.
More than 100,000 items were quickly taken from warehouses and more will follow, said Kristi Clemens, spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection division.
The agency has some 1 million items stored, and Customs officials are going through their inventory to see what else would be useful. While the initial shipment went to Texas, officials are looking toward a wider distribution, Clemens said.
Then perspective seeped in, and I began to feel bitter.
Our sermon at church on Sunday was about the soul- and world-transforming power of work, and about the fundamental impulse people feel, when faced with something like the devastation on the Gulf Coast, to ask "how can I be useful?" It's the impulse that led Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling to fly a refugee family of nine up to Boston and personally take on the responsibility for housing them and supplying their needs, instead of just writing a check. It's what led a caravan of Minnesotans on a 2,300-mile, 52-hour journey to deliver 100,000 pounds of "food, water, diapers and hygiene items" to Louisiana. (No permalinks - scroll down to 5:14pm.) It's what's led Kathryn Cramer to help evacuees figure out whether their houses are under water from her home thousands of miles away. Across the country, around the world, people are using their ingenuity and their desire to be useful to address a million needs of evacuees, small and large. School uniforms for evacuated children who will be attending Dallas public schools, so they won't look different from the other kids. Animal blood for veterinary casualties. Admission to universities all across the South for students whose college educations have been disrupted. (All stories here, sadly without permalinks.)
Properly harnessed, this impulse to be useful could have created the greatest rescue and relief effort the world has ever seen. If FEMA had facilitated and directed - or even allowed - the spontaneous direct help offered to Katrina survivors, thousands of lives might have been saved and untold amounts of suffering might have been prevented.
Instead, offers of help were disregarded, delayed, deferred. One hundred surgeons and paramedics sat idle in a superbly outfitted mobile hospital, prevented from entering the diaster area, while other doctors attempting to volunteer were ignored or delayed and evacuees died of treatable illnesses and injuries. While people trapped in the Convention Center had no water and those in the Superdome were rationed to a pint a day, the USS Bataan waited for federal orders just offshore:
The USS Bataan, a 844-foot ship designed to dispatch Marines in amphibious assaults, has helicopters, doctors, hospital beds, food and water. It also can make its own water, up to 100,000 gallons a day. And it just happened to be in the Gulf of Mexico when Katrina came roaring ashore.National Guard units offered by other states were held up until late Thursday night because of paperwork not been signed in Washington. Federal caches of fire-fighting equipment designed to be shipped anywhere in less than 12 hours remained unshipped because hurricane-ravaged governors had not made formal requests for them. But that's okay, because the thousand volunteer firefighters FEMA requested, many of whom had special qualifications in search-and-rescue, paramedic training, and hazmat experience, were told they would be used only for PR work. The only 50 to enter New Orleans? Were sent to stand beside Bush during his photo ops. A flotilla of 500 small boats was refused permission to help evacuate the stranded and dying in New Orleans. The American Ambulance Association wanted to send 300 ambulances from Florida, former Senator John Breaux reported, and "were told to get permission from the General Services Administration. 'GSA said they had to have FEMA ask for it,' Breaux told CNN. 'As a result they weren't sent.' "
The Bataan rode out the storm and then followed it toward shore, awaiting relief orders. Helicopter pilots flying from its deck were some of the first to begin plucking stranded New Orleans residents.
But now the Bataan's hospital facilities, including six operating rooms and beds for 600 patients, are empty. A good share of its 1,200 sailors could also go ashore to help with the relief effort, but they haven't been asked. The Bataan has been in the stricken region the longest of any military unit, but federal authorities have yet to fully utilize the ship.
So, good for the Customs Department, I guess. But it's such a frustrating glimpse of what could have happened if all federal agencies had been directed to figure out what they could contribute to the relief effort, and if everyone who had skills or supplies to offer had been allowed to provide them.
I'll close with one final emblematic story. This comes from Door County, Wisconsin, a region so un-central to the recovery and relief efforts that you can be guaranteed that if it happened there, it happened everywhere.
Early on Friday morning Christie Weber watched the Mayor of New Orleans screaming on CNN, "We need buses to get these people out of here. Get off your ass and get down here."
She picked up the phone and started calling local charter bus companies. By 6 AM she discovered that there was an abundance of vehicles ready and waiting to be deployed - if and when they were called upon. But, until now no one had called. All of the charter bus companies that Weber rang up had already signed on with FEMA several days earlier, and they were just waiting for a call back regarding financial reimbursement, a destination and an approved route.