Hurricane Aid Sits While Victims Starve

I traveled to disaster-ravaged Nicaragua for this 1999 story. This was intended to be a warm-and-fuzzy feature about aid for Hurricane Mitch victims that was donated from people in Los Angeles. The relief supplies — hundreds of tons — were supposed to be passed out by the Catholic Church. But the story turned into a harder-edged investigative piece after the supplies were confiscated by the president’s daughter and left sitting on the docks while victims suffered.

Los Angeles Times
Monday April 5, 1999
COLUMN ONE
Aid Stalled Yet Again; Hope Dims
* Food and other items finally get from L.A. to Nicaragua, only to sit on a dock. Hurricane victims face desperate conditions.
Home Edition, Main News, Page A-1
Metro Desk
55 inches; 1956 words
Type of Material: Non Dup
By ROBERT J. LOPEZ, TIMES STAFF WRITER

PUERTO CORINTO, Nicaragua — Hundreds of tons of hurricane aid from Los Angeles are stacked up in metal containers under the hot sun at this small port. An hour’s drive away, thousands of victims–barefoot children with swollen bellies, a mother cooking beans in an old paint can–are barely surviving in makeshift refugee camps.

Long delays in getting help to Hurricane Mitch victims are not what Nicole Wool and thousands of other Los Angeles donors had in mind. Five months have passed since the storm tore through Nicaragua, killing 3,000 people and leaving 40,000 families homeless.

“It’s just terrible,” Wool said when told the shipment containing donations she rounded up was sitting at the port. A student at Southwestern University School of Law, Wool rushed to collect bags of food and clothing from her classmates last December. “To have all that stuff sitting there and not have access to it is just inhumane.”

The Nicaraguan consul general in Los Angeles had pledged that all the goods collected would be handed out immediately by the Catholic Church in Nicaragua.

Instead, the cargo has ended up in the hands of a social services operation run by the Nicaraguan president’s daughter, Maria Dolores Aleman. She was in Ecuador last week during her Easter holiday and has said she will decide what to do with the goods after she returns this week.

The stalled shipment shows how good intentions can be undercut by a lack of planning and the politics of aid distribution in a country still divided by civil warfare that raged for about a dozen years.

Shortly after the storm struck Oct. 28, the Nicaraguan consul general in Los Angeles appealed for donations.
The consul and his small staff soon were overwhelmed by mountains of contributions. The 675 tons–from food to medicine to mattresses–became stranded in Los Angeles warehouses for nearly three months because there was no money to pay for shipping.

The snag was reported by The Times in late January. The response from the public helped raise thousands of dollars to transport the badly needed supplies.

Finally, on March 12, the 28 cargo containers of supplies–one of the largest humanitarian shipments to be sent to
Nicaragua–were loaded onto an old freighter at the Port of Los Angeles.

But after landing here on March 19, nearly all of the 40-foot containers remain at the dock. There is no specific plan for distribution.

Meanwhile, relief officials here say that international food donations have tailed off while malnourished victims make do with meager rations and babies go days without milk. “We need the help for our children,” said Miguel Canda, who survives with 11 family members in a plastic tent at a dusty camp an hour from the port.

Canda and other refugees from a massive mudslide that killed more than 1,500 people in a Sandinista-administered area complain that they have been forgotten by the Nicaraguan government. The little food that has arrived, they say, has come largely from international relief organizations and local nonprofit groups.

President Arnoldo Aleman, a widower, has appointed his daughter as first lady. She oversees charities to shelter street children and provide supplies for hospitals in the capital of Managua.

The few Los Angeles items that have been distributed–thousands of dollars worth of new Simmons mattresses–did not reach hurricane survivors, as intended, but went to needy hospitals as part of one of her charity projects.

“I’m appalled,” said Claudia Lanuza of Compton-based Simmons Corp., which made the $30,000 gift. “We wanted to deal specifically with hurricane people.”

The 26-year-old first lady said she would give some of the containers to the Catholic Church and that she and the government are moving as fast as possible to get aid to those who need it, as well as to deserving institutions.

“The destruction was very fast, but the reconstruction is very slow,” she said, adding that she hoped to have the Los Angeles goods distributed in a month.

She said the government is working to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure and address victims’ long-term needs.
Some critics, however, accuse the Nicaraguan government of ignoring immediate needs at some refugee camps.

“They decided arbitrarily that the emergency is over, and they have turned their backs on the victims of the hurricane,” said Carlos F. Chamorro, a scion of one of Nicaragua’s most prominent political and journalism families.

He recently surveyed hurricane-hit areas with students from UC Berkeley, where he is on a teaching fellowship.
Clearly, massive amounts of humanitarian aid have found their way to thousands of people across Central America.

But the Los Angeles shipment shows that international gift giving can be an uncertain venture.
The tale of the troubled aid is something Los Angeles donors did not envision.

A Tragic Story Inspires Action

In late October, Hurricane Mitch ravaged Central America with driving rain and winds up to 180 mph.
Back in Los Angeles, Wool and others watched the destruction rage across their TV screens.

Myrna Hernandez and husband Conrad Martin fought back tears as news reports showed battered towns in their native Nicaragua.

Humberto Moya, a supervisor at Simmons, couldn’t help but recall a 1985 earthquake in Mexico City that killed thousands and leveled his brother-in-law’s home.

“I was watching TV and I was thinking, ‘Why don’t we give mattresses to the Hurricane Mitch people?’ ” Moya recalled.

He approached Simmons supervisors, offering to round up a crew to assemble the mattresses on their day off. His bosses liked the idea. About 50 volunteers spent an entire Saturday building 340 top-of-the-line mattresses.

Hernandez and Martin, meanwhile, had turned their Long Beach condominium into a command post. They persuaded the Long Beach Fire Department to put drop-off boxes at its 23 stations. And they rented a small moving van to collect goods left at the stations.

By late December, Consul General Silvio Mendez’s operation had bogged down. Most of the goods that filled three warehouses had yet to be sorted. And Mendez needed about $30,000 for shipping costs.

At the same time, a local relief effort coordinated by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) shipped hundreds of tons of supplies to Nicaragua and Honduras. But the congresswoman worked only with nonprofit groups, saying she had received reports of corruption and of government aid shipments sitting idle after they arrived in Nicaragua.

In a Jan. 29 Times article, Mendez denied the accusations, saying the Catholic Church was handing out the government aid in Nicaragua. The story prompted a flurry of volunteers and money, including a $20,000 gift from an Orange County community group.

By Feb. 17, the warehoused cargo containers were at the Port of Los Angeles. That same day, Mendez backed off from his pledge that the Catholic Church would pass out all the goods.

He said four containers carrying mattresses would go to Nicaragua’s first lady. Two days later, he said she would get another container filled with hospital supplies: crutches, sheets, antibiotics and painkillers.

Then, on Feb. 24, the consul said the first lady’s share of the goods had increased to 12 containers.
After the shipment arrived in Nicaragua, 17 days ago, the first lady’s social service operation took control of all 28 containers.

Mendez said Thursday that some of the containers will still be distributed through the Catholic Church but that they went to the first lady because she could move them through customs faster. “She did it to speed things up,” the consul said.

However, the containers on the dock have already been there twice as long as the typical hurricane shipment, the port’s director said.

Mattresses to Hospitals, Not Hurricane Victims

Even before Hurricane Mitch–the worst natural disaster to strike the Western Hemisphere in two centuries–Nicaragua was already one of the poorest countries in the Americas.

In such circumstances, need is relative. And the first lady said the seven hospitals that received about 200 Simmons mattresses March 24 were deserving.

At one hospital, psychiatric patients slept on the floor. But there was not a single hurricane victim at any of the hospitals, according to administrators.

Simmons executives say they are not callous to the needs of Managua’s hospitals, but they noted that their contribution was intended for hurricane survivors in the hardest-hit areas. They had been promised this would be the case in a March 3 letter from Mendez.

“Let me assure you,” the consul wrote, “this donation is going to benefit the victims of this disaster only.”
Mendez said last week that what happened with the mattresses was not his fault. “I did my part here,” he said.

In a November audit by the Nicaraguan controller, the first lady’s office was criticized for not documenting hurricane donations it had received. She disputed the findings of the controller, a political rival of President Aleman. But her office, which is run out of the presidential complex, said it had no records of relief supplies it had received or where they had gone.

Management of international disaster relief is a particularly sensitive subject in Nicaragua. Evidence that dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle misappropriated aid after a 1972 earthquake contributed to growing unrest that exploded into civil war about four years later.

The first lady said some of the Los Angeles containers would go to the Matagalpa and Jinotega areas. Both are strongholds of support for her father’s right-wing Liberal Party.

Critics have accused the government of shipping much of its aid to areas controlled by the ruling party while ignoring such devastated places as Posoltega municipality, which is run by Sandinistas.

On Oct. 30, a tidal wave of mud and water from the Casitas volcano buried more than 1,500 people in a tomb of earth and rocks in Posoltega municipality. Two villages were swallowed up by the mudslide and others were heavily affected.

Government officials deny the accusation that Sandinista-run areas have been neglected, and Mendez said Thursday that he had intended that two containers go to Leon and Chinandega, two Sandinista-run cities.

Yet, criticism persists.

“Posoltega is the grand tragedy of the hurricane and symbolizes the politicization of the aid,” said Maria Lopez, editor of Envio, a monthly news magazine published by the Jesuit-run University of Central America in Managua.

Makeshift Memorials to the Dead

The scar from the mudslide fans out from the 4,600-foot Casitas mountain to a road six miles away. Deep canyons, where torrents roared through, gouge the land. Scattered crosses of gnarled branches and weathered boards memorialize the victims.

On a dry plain just off the highway lies “El Tanque,” a refugee camp of about 1,000 people who once maintained a poor but sustainable existence raising crops and animals on the mountainside.

Named after an old water tank, this is a community of black plastic tents that heat up like an oven under the blazing sun. Water is drawn by hand from wells that run dry each morning when women and children fill their buckets.

Weary residents, such as Jose Inez Rueda, 21, who lost 72 relatives, cannot understand why the Los Angeles shipment of food and other goods sits just an hour away. It reinforces their belief that they have been ignored by their government.

“Why is that aid over there if it is for victims?” asks Miguel Canda, 50. “All we want is for the government to give food to its people.”

Among Canda’s family are six children from 4 months to 12 years old. They get by mainly on monthly handouts from evangelical groups and private organizations.

Each family receives a 50-pound bag of corn for tortillas, two-pound bags of rice and beans and a container of cooking oil.

After waking up, the Canda clan finishes off coffee purchased with money that son Herman, 24, earned working at a tobacco farm. Ruth, 12, nibbles on a piece of hard tortilla left over from the night before.

To stretch the food, they eat the first meal at noon: beans and tortillas. They have the same thing before sleeping. Their rice has run out, Canda says, and relief workers told him that there will be no rice next month.

Baby Christian, Canda’s grandson, is 5 months old. He was born a month premature–and a day after the mudslide while his family waited to be rescued. He is crying. So is his cousin, 2-year-old Elsi.

Canda says they haven’t had milk for eight days.

Elsi’s light brown hair is streaked with dirt and tied in two small ponytails. She wears filthy shorts and rubber sandals, and her belly is hard and bloated.

Her cousin, 2-year-old Eddie, also has a swollen stomach. He sits naked on the ground, smashing ants with his hands.

All the Canda children are sick. Their noses are running and they cough repeatedly. Their eyes are reddened by endless clouds of dust.

Canda reads his Bible out loud. It’s the Book of Revelations, which tells of suffering and natural disaster.
He says the passages help him understand his situation. “Our life,” says Canda, a short man with gapped teeth, “is a battle.”

Aside from his faith, Canda says he is certain of only a few things: Each day will be a struggle. And when the rainy season begins in about a month, El Tanque will become a cold, muddy place.

The fate of the Los Angeles aid–and whether any of it will reach El Tanque–is not so certain.
Nonetheless, the shipment’s long and unfinished journey does provide lessons for future disasters, according to relief experts.

The best thing, they say, is to send money to reputable international organizations or nonprofit groups in the affected countries. In that way, money that would be used for shipping can go directly into aid. And goods typically used by the victims can be purchased locally.

“Financial donations are the best and most flexible way to cope with emergency needs,” said Hugo Prado of the Pan-American Health Organization in Washington. “That’s much better than sending goods.”
*
Times librarian Scott Wilson contributed to this story

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