Desperate Crowd Seeking Relief Creates Chaos In CNMI

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More than 2,000 descend on Red Cross forcing road closure

By Dennis B. Chan

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Aug. 13, 2015) – A desperate crowd of about 2,000 people forced ports police to close the Airport Road when the traffic spilled into the road, fought with each other, and grew angry in the hot sun as they waited for relief goods at the local chapter of the American Red Cross yesterday morning, Red Cross and Commonwealth Ports Authority officials said.

The officials described the event yesterday as "chaotic" and "overwhelming," and said the rush began around 7:30am and shut down by 11am.

Hundreds were turned away. The Red Cross explained they were calling in the first 250 people who had signed up for typhoon relief assistance last week—not the large amount of people who lined up yesterday.

"The demand is real…," American Red Cross NMI Chapter executive director John Hirsch said.

CPA executive director Maryann Lizama compared the event to the recent miles-long line of cars waiting at Shell gas stations.

"We had to close the road, redirect traffic because people were walking on the road, standing, waiting in line on the road, and kids moving about, which was unsafe," she said.

Lizama said she diverted three-fourths of her police force down to the Red Cross chapter.

"…It came to a point were people were yelling at each other, pushing, shoving, slapping and punching."

"People were lining up in the heat. Cars were parked all over the shoulders of the road. It was like Shell gas station line in reverse. Operators and passengers heading to the airport were disrupted because they were being careful not to run over anyone."

Lizama said she met with Red Cross and told them that, without an organized system, the whole thing needed to be shut down. They shut down at 11am, she said.

"Red Cross made an announcement and my guys started advising people that they had to leave," she said.

Hirsch explained that they were calling in the first 250 people that called in to the Chapter for assistance.

"What ended up happening, of course, was they spread the word that Red Cross is giving out assistance now. So they called their friends, who called their friends, and then—just through the coconut wireless—all of a sudden we had 2,000 people here this morning."

Hirsh said they are trying to manage about 250 to 300 households a day. That means within about three or four days Red Cross should be able to take care of about a thousand families. They are providing financial assistance based on the type of damage homes took from Typhoon Soudelor and are also providing bulk distribution of hand sanitizers, cleaning supplies, toilet products, rice, and burner stoves, among others.

Hirsch said Red Cross handed out coupons with numbers so that the 250 who were closest to the line that got there first got appointments for today and the next 250 would be there on Friday.

"We knew obviously that this wasn’t the best situation. We all knew that. So we pretty much ran out right away. Started all of our volunteers, and our 50 Red Cross people and we were helping them and giving them water and all kinds of things. Once we explained to everybody what was happening, everybody was pretty happy. Obviously there were some people who were frustrated. I would be, too, if I waited two hours, and was told I had to go home."

"…We know that people’s frustrations are high right now. People want to get assistance. They want help," he said.

But Hirsch said that in order to be responsible for every dollar that is donated to the Red Cross, they had to do "good casework."

"We want to make sure we are not duplicating" or serving different heads of households, he said for example.

"It all takes time, especially with the destruction that we’ve seen," he added.

He said people were sleeping overnight at the location.

"It’s really heartbreaking to see families wait here in line for several hours when they don’t really need to…We have 4,000 who have already called in and are looking for help. We want to take care of that list."

Red Cross has served over 300 people in the last couple of days, Hirsch said.

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