​When disaster relief brings anything but relief

Many of the well-meaning articles we Americans donate in times of disaster turn out to be of no use to those in need. Sometimes, they even get in the way. That's a message relief organizations very much want us to heed. Our Cover Story is reported now by Scott Simon of NPR:

When Nature grows savage and angry, Americans get generous and kind. That's admirable. It might also be a problem.

"Generally after a disaster, people with loving intentions donate things that cannot be used in a disaster response, and in fact may actually be harmful," said Juanita Rilling, director of the Center for International Disaster Information in Washington, D.C. "And they have no idea that they're doing it."

Rilling has spent more than a decade trying to tell well-meaning people to think before they give.

In 1998 Hurricane Mitch struck Honduras. More than 11,000 people died. More than a million and a half were left homeless.

And Rilling got a wake-up call: "Got a call from one of our logistics experts who said that a plane full of supplies could not land, because there was clothing on the runway. It's in boxes and bales. It takes up yards of space. It can't be moved.' 'Whose clothing is it?' He said, 'Well, I don't know whose it is, but there's a high-heeled shoe, just one, and a bale of winter coats.' And I thought, winter coats? It's summer in Honduras."

Humanitarian workers call the crush of useless, often incomprehensible contributions "the second disaster."

In 2004, following the Indian Ocean tsunami, a beach in Indonesia was piled with used clothing.

There was no time for disaster workers to sort and clean old clothes. So the contributions just sat and rotted.

"This very quickly went toxic and had to be destroyed," said Rilling. "And local officials poured gasoline on it and set it on fire. And then it was out to sea."

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Tons of donated clothing on the beach at Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

USAID/OFDA

"So, rather than clothing somebody, it went up in flames?" asked Simon.

"Correct. The thinking is that these people have lost everything, so they must NEED everything. So people SEND everything. You know, any donation is crazy if it's not needed. People have donated prom gowns and wigs and tiger costumes and pumpkins, and frostbite cream to Rwanda, and used teabags, 'cause you can always get another cup of tea."

You may not think that sending bottles of water to devastated people seems crazy. But Rilling points out, "This water, it's about 100,000 liters, will provide drinking water for 40,000 people for one day. This amount of water to send from the United States, say, to West Africa -- and people did this -- costs about $300,000. But relief organizations with portable water purification units can produce the same amount, a 100,000 liters of water, for about $300."

And then there were warm-hearted American women who wanted to send their breast milk to nursing mothers in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

"It sounds wonderful, but in the midst of a crisis it's actually one of the most challenging things," said Rebecca Gustafson, a humanitarian aid expert who has worked on the ground after many disasters.

"Breast milk doesn't stay fresh for very long. And the challenge is, what happens if you do give it to an infant who then gets sick?"

December 2012, Newtown, Connecticut: A gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Almost instantaneously, stuff start arriving.

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Tens of thousands of stuffed animals, donated to the children of Newtown, Conn., following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, fill a warehouse. Most donations were sent away.

Chris Kelsey

Chris Kelsey, who worked for Newtown at the time, said they had to get a warehouse to hold all the teddy bears.

Simon asked, "Was there a need for teddy bears?"