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Volunteer truckers find obstacles delivering supplies to Midwest flood victims

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EVANSVILLE, Ind., April 19 (UPI) — A group of professional truck drivers, volunteering their time and rigs, successfully transported sorely needed supplies to Midwest flood victims following this spring’s catastrophic flooding. But the process was far from smooth.

The drivers were helping a new nonprofit organization, Trucks with Room to Spare, which connects truckers heading through disaster zones and have space in their rigs with groups and individuals who are donating relief supplies.

“Lots of trucks travel across America and a lot have empty space,” said Shelli Conaway, the group’s founder, who is an independent professional driver from Kentucky. “They’re carrying the loads they’re getting paid for, but they might have space for four more pallets. Four pallets of water is a lot for a city that’s been hit by a natural disaster.”

The group formed shortly before a historic flood in mid-March inundated Nebraska and a few surrounding states. The area desperately needed supplies. Thousands of people were displaced as the waters ripped through places that never before flooded, destroying homes and farms and killing livestock. Many of those displaced had no clean water and a limited food supply.

Trucks with Room to Spare mobilized, gathering supplies to send to the disaster zones. It wasn’t the only group to offer aid.

Within days of the initial flood, relief supplies were arriving en masse. Trailers full of bottled water, blankets and power bars poured into state-established drop sites from all over the country. Some were hauled by professional drivers who had volunteered their time and rigs. Other aid came from individuals, churches or other civic organizations.

‘Second disaster’

As the days wore on, relief crews got a handle on the wreckage. Supplies were delivered to the people who needed them, and communities turned their attention toward cleanup and rebuilding.

But the donations continued to arrive. They piled up — unused and unnecessary — at the state’s drop sites, leaving emergency management officials scrambling, not to help flood victims but to find places to store or send the overflow.

“It’s a well-known phenomenon in emergency management called ‘the second disaster’ of the shipped supplies,” said Tim Newman, a regional emergency management coordinator in Nebraska. “People want to give, but they’re afraid to give money. So rather than send money, they buy something and send it. It really just throws the site into chaos, especially when you get many, many more supplies than you need.”

The “second disaster” is nothing new. There are accounts of it accompanying every natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina. Football fields are heaped with piles of unneeded clothing; tarmacs are stacked with unused bottles of water; warehouses are filled with furniture that has nowhere to go because the disaster victims all lost their homes.

In Nebraska, at least one donation site closed and turned people away, Newman said. Excess supplies still are shuffled from place to place or simply rejected, frustrating well-intentioned givers.

“In the early stages, there was a lot of overflow at some of the hubs,” Conaway said. “Everyone was taking their supplies to the same areas, so now we’re having to reshuffle the supplies, and move them to areas that do need them.”

To a certain extent, these logistical problems are unavoidable in disaster situations, said James Moore, the director of the Transportation and Engineering Program at the University of Southern California.

“Trying to coordinate in any circumstance when there is a lot of need and also a lot of uncertainty usually leads to outcomes that are not as productive as they otherwise might be,” Moore said.

‘Guesswork and uncertainty’

In the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, basic supplies need to be delivered quickly to victims, who are often homeless and without potable water or food. Therein lies the problem.

“The need exists, but it often can’t be accessed very quickly,” Moore said. “So there’s a lot of guesswork and uncertainty. If you guess wrong, supplies get wasted. But if you don’t guess, people who need help might not get it.”

Communication is key, said Elisabeth Barna, executive vice president of industry affairs for the American Trucking Association.

Trucks with Room to Spare is just one of the nonprofit groups that deliver supplies to disaster areas. The American Logistics Aid Network, for example, has been operating since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 with a similar goal.

These groups attempt to reduce waste and confusion by communicating directly with officials and relief groups on the ground to learn what supplies are needed — and where. They then collect donations and find truckers who are able to take a load to the disaster site.

“A lot of people say money is the better way to do it, but they’re still going to need to trucks to bring in all the supplies they order,” Barna said. “We are such an important cog in the relief effort.”

And with every disaster, their response improves, Barna said.

Hay emergency

Situations sometimes exist in which deliveries are literally lifesaving. That happened in Nebraska this spring after flooding destroyed nearly all the hay in the state. That left the surviving cattle — weakened from the severe weather — in danger of starving.

Farmers and state officials put out word that they needed hay — fast. The donations began arriving immediately.

“We were on the East Coast when I heard,” said Lisa Schmitt, the director of agriculture relations with Trucks with Room to Spare. Schmitt’s husband is a professional truck driver, and she often accompanies him on trips. “I wanted to help.” 

The couple drove immediately to Oklahoma to pick up donated hay. With room left in their trailer, they did a few television interviews asking for more donations, and by the time they arrived in Nebraska, their truck was full.

Knowing that Nebraska’s donation sites were overwhelmed, Schmitt used her contacts to find farmers who needed hay, and the couple brought their load directly to them.

“We got to know these people,” Schmitt said. “We’ve been invited back for cattle branding and offered places to stay whenever we’re in the area. After we dropped off our last load, we were heading out of Nebraska and my husband and I looked out at all the devastation. It was a little surreal. My husband just looked at me and said, ‘Bunny, we did a good thing.'”

Monetary donations best

Though these kinds of stories are undeniably uplifting — and admirable — the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency’s Newman cautions future good Samaritans that situations like this are the exception — not the rule.

“Hay is a perfect example of something that is good to donate,” Newman said. “When you have a giant flood that ruins all the hay, it needs to be shipped in from other areas.”

But beyond these “unusual items,” Newman said, it is far more useful to donate money to reputable relief groups that are actively on the ground rather than supplies.

“If someone sends me $1,000, I know exactly what I need,” Newman said. “I can get it, and I don’t have to warehouse it. It’s hard to get people to understand that they don’t need to send supplies that we have not asked for.”

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