$75 Million Of Stuff

Chris Ward is snaking through a tunnel of cardboard crates, past boxes marked cotton balls or peroxide or IV kits, past thousands of shampoo containers organized by size. Hangar 5, at JFK airport's Cargo Area D, which Ward supervises for the Salvation Army, is one of the last of almost two dozen warehouses that bulged with the clothes, supplies and food that flooded New York City after 9-11. The 21-year-old Long Island native gestures from one towering pile to another, like a docent in a church. "Towels, blankets, rubber boots," he points. "We put all the cell phones there. There, flashlights. Over there is, oh my gosh, tons and tons of water." Ward supposes it will be July before he is finished distributing it all. Americans have never been so generous before.

The problem is, very little of it was needed.

While intense scrutiny has followed the $2 billion in cash that Americans contributed to terror victims, almost no attention has gone to the material donations that arrived in a nonstop caravan of 18-wheelers. No one yet has any idea how much stuff came, much less what it was all worth. But a picture of the staggering scope of the giving has begun to emerge: more than 2 million square feet of toothpaste and shovels, canned beans and diapers was lovingly routed east by Girl Scouts, grandmothers, neighborhoods and churches. A rough estimate of its worth, drawn from dozens of interviews, is $75 million or more.

Today all the warehouses under the control of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, are closed, their contents shipped away. The city still operates one storage facility; the Salvation Army has two of their five remaining. No government or nonprofit agency has kept exact records on the goods, officials say. What seems clear, though, is that little of the cargo reached the intended recipients, as they simply had no use for it. Ben Curran, FEMA's donations program manager, believes under half the total was given to search and rescue workers, or victims and their families; Larry Buckner, who oversaw six FEMA warehouses, puts the number closer to 30 percent.

The rest, they agree, went to other New Yorkers affected by the disaster or to private charities and churches serving the region's poor. Emergency workers say this happens after any disaster. They aggressively discourage donated goods in remarks to the press. But turning off the spigots in September proved impossible. "Some people just had this compelling need to help even if it wasn't helpful," says Richard Sheirer, New York City's commissioner of emergency management.

The propensity of Americans to ship stuff to national disasters has become such an overpowering reflex that rescue workers now have to divert considerable resources just to ensure the largesse does not get in the way. Some even describe the torrent of sundries as a "second tier" disaster. They all hoped to avoid the debacle faced after Hurricane Andrew pounded Florida in 1993, where officials were forced to do the unspeakable with the donated goods: "It was bulldozed, burnt and landfilled," admits Curran.

Within minutes of the Trade Center collapse, city, state and federal "emergency donations managers" rented warehouses in New Jersey, New York state and Connecticut, and commandeered Yankee Stadium and the Javits Center in midtown. The Red Cross, the Salvation Army and a network of nonprofits linked to the national response team opened other storehouses, including the JFK hangar, which Wal-Mart donated. Thousands of 18-wheelers began arriving from as far away as Alaska. Meanwhile, New Yorkers spontaneously formed lines around Manhattan, laden with food, socks, flashlights--even a shipment of prom dresses. "It was chaos," says Alison Brett, an American Red Cross donations specialist. "People were just throwing stuff at us."

In the end, only some items were useful to the rescue and relief efforts, like new work gloves, boots, extra-large sweatshirts and teddy bears. ("We gave them to the rescue workers, and you should have seen how much they appreciated that," says Brett.) According to Larry Buckner, a donations expert with the Seventh-day Adventists, the church group overseeing the dispersal, there was no time to clean used clothing or sort garments given in small quantities--those were all sent immediately to shelters for the homeless and church programs. Costly medical supplies, unneeded in the immediate disaster, were offered to city EMS drivers and free clinics nearby, Buckner says. Even bottled water, by far the largest single category of donations, proved unnecessary, as the city water supply had not been fouled by the attack.

But the biggest surprise was the dog food. In a show of concern for rescue dogs, some $250,000 worth of kibble reached the warehouses, tons at a time. In fact, those dogs require special food, which their handlers brought with them. So the supplies were redirected to animal shelters and ASPCA facilities throughout the East Coast, says Humane Society officer Samantha Mullen.

In Roseville, Mich., Vincent Soulsby was entirely unaware of how inundated the relief agencies were feeling. He merely wanted to help. So, as NEWSWEEK has reported, the 27-year-old construction executive gathered up 30 tractor-trailers full of donations. The goods--everything from racks of pickaxes to 200 brand-new Motorola two-way radios--weighed 400 tons in all. Soulsby estimates the value at more than $30 million, including the $5,000 he spent on relief supplies. Frank Donaghue, a Red Cross official from Philadelphia, directed Soulsby's caravan to a private warehouse in New Jersey, where he unloaded the hoard. What happened to it all? It's hard to say. Laura VanDelinder, the Red Cross employee who tracked all donations, could not find Soulsby's name on any of her logs. The Salvation Army staffed the New Jersey warehouse, but New York disaster director Moises Serrano simply cannot say he saw Soulsby's stuff. "I would have loved to have had 200 two-way radios," he says. Only Larry Lang, the warehouse manager, remembers seeing it all arrive, but he does not know where it all went.

Learning the murky truth about his donations breaks Vincent Soulsby's heart. The postdisaster economy has hurt his business, and he is now facing bankruptcy himself. "I wanted this stuff to go to the families and the firemen, people who were having a hard time," he says. "Not for some average Joe off the street who needed it. If that's the case, they can send some of that stuff back to my house."