Hurricane Relief Abandoned in Customs

Like a command imprinted in our consciousness, St Lucians living abroad accept literally the words of its national anthem: “. . . Wheresoever you may roam, love, oh love our island home.” This charge keeps Lucian migrants fully engaged and tuned in to events at home. It is this patriotic command that moves them to community action in the interest of country.
Hurricane Tomas had barely left its trail of devastation and destruction on the island on October 31, 2010, when the St Lucia Association of Georgia sprung into action. Its President, Mr Denis Ishmael, had been following radio reports closely and the level of damage to the island signified that the country was in need of all the aid it could garner. Tomas, pushing winds of 92-mph, destroyed 10,000 homes and 14 deaths were reported.
The massive destruction to crops, roads and infrastructure was estimated at US$500 million.
Hurricane Tomas’ drenching rains and heavy winds moving slowly over the country had not only put a stop to Jounen Kweyol activities but it had shattered the lives of many people. Tomas also did the unthinkable; dividing the country into two by rendering the roads from the north to south impassable. Communication was a major challenge and the island’s electricity and water supply were badly affected islandwide.
Well known for my community activism, I was dispatched to an Atlanta radio station 89.3FM to launch the association’s relief effort. Members gathered to begin its biggest hurricane relief drive ever undertaken in the association’s history. Understanding the need, St Lucians of all persuasions rallied to the call. The relief drive netted a 20 ft. container of nonperishable items estimated at US$7000.00.
From the start of the relief effort, President Ishmael encountered the usual governmental bureaucratic stumbling blocks. When he sought an official letter from the relevant authorities, granting permission to approach corporate entities for assistance, he was bluntly asked by St. Lucia’s Ambassador to the United States and OAS, based in Washington, Dr Michael Louis, “What do you need a letter for?” Mr. Ishmael replied, “This is America and it is inappropriate for me to go seeking corporate assistance on behalf of the country without an official written endorsement.” A high level diplomat should have known of such protocol. More importantly, in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane an established mechanism to deal with such requests should have already been established. But that was just the beginning of the official foot dragging. The association did not bargain for the 365 days of grief and frustration it had to endure to get government officials to do what they promised: getting the container out of Customs.
By November 1, 2010, St Lucia’s Consul General, Kent Hippolyte, based in Miami assured Mr Ishmael that the necessary “arrangement was in place for the freight charges to be picked up by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” On Nov. 9, 2010, following up on his undertaking, Mr Hippolyte placed Denis in contact with David Kelly of St Lucia Express Freight Services, Inc, a shipping agent based in Miami.
On December 17, 2010 the following was loaded into the container: more than 60 cases of water, 49 boxes of clothing, shoes, toys, 6 mattresses, 2 pallets of linen and blankets ( four bales in total), one small barrel of non-perishable items and two jumbo barrels. The container left Atlanta for the Tomas-ravaged island. Now, the issue was who would take care of the freight cost to get the container from Customs once it arrived in St Lucia. Mr David Kelly, of St Lucia Express Freight Services Inc based in Miami, agreed to ship the container from Atlanta to St Lucia pro-bono, his contribution to his homeland’s hour of need. On December 27, 2010 an e-mail from Mr Kelly to Mr Ishmael confirmed the shipment to St Lucia:  “Please find attached export documentation covering the 20 ft. container of humanitarian relief supplies donated by the St Lucia Association of Georgia arriving Port Castries this week under b/l: STL459690 onboard vessel Dover Strait UA505S. Also attached is a letter addressed to The Comptroller of Customs to assist in clearing the container.”
In St Lucia, Tomas relief supplies were detained at Customs for an entire year. Never mind the undertaking given by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to pick up the cost of freight; it never happened. In fact in the yearlong interchange between President Ishmael and local officials, he was told an outright lie that the freight was paid by the accountant from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
By February 2011 the container still had not been cleared from Customs. On February 17, 2011 Consul General, Kent Hippolyte provided Mr. Ishmael the name of the Accountant, via e-mail: From: hipkent@aol.com [mailto:hipkent@aol.com] Sent: Thursday, February 17, 2011 10:38 AM To: Denis S. Ishmael Subject: Re: Donations, Anthony Philgence (758 468-4505). He was responding to a question from Mr. Ishmael as to who was responsible for making the payment to Customs from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
On March 1, 2011 Mr Ishmael wrote to Mr. Kenneth Monplasir of the St Lucia Red Cross:
“The Saint Lucia Association of Georgia shipped a 20 ft container with a variety of items for the Saint Lucia Red Cross late last year. Unfortunately, the shipper placed the Foreign Affairs Ministry (Rufus Bousquet) as the consignee.
“Due to that the container has not been cleared from Customs. I have spoken with Mr Kent Hippolyte, who indicated that he was trying to get Anthony Philgence (758-468-4505) the accountant at the Foreign Affairs to assist in clearing the container.
It has now been brought to my attention that he is not willing to finance the freight. Is there any way that you could speak with the Minister requesting that they finance the freight for your organization, especially since they have been given a few thousand US dollars to help with the recovery of the aftermath of Tomas.
Mr Monplasir replied: “I am in receipt of your letter by way of email dated 1st March 2011.
I note its contents and regret that we are unable to assist since the container was addressed to the consignee, that is, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and cannot assume that because it is consigned to the Minister that we are entitled to its contents. In the circumstances, we cannot have anything to do with the container.”
An entire year had gone by and the freight charges for clearing the container out of Customs had reached a whopping EC $8000.00. It was clear that neither the government nor the St Lucia Red Cross, with whom Mr Ishmael was in constant contact, were going to resolve this matter. Meanwhile, Mr Kelly, the Good Samaritan, who had been very generous in transporting the Tomas relief supplies to St Lucia was completely frustrated and needed his 20 ft. container to keep his business going. Obviously, there was much better financial use for his container than to be sitting uselessly at Customs on the island.
After a year in detention the container was released to its owner and the donated items never reached their intended target, St Lucians who were in need after a major hurricane.
President Denis Ishmael says he is going public with his experiences now that another hurricane season has just begun, and he does not wants this debacle to be repeated. “I want this to be a story of lessons learnt, not to point fingers,” he said calmly. “I hope this experience will allow the authorities to setup a workable protocol to deal effectively with the aftermath of any disaster, in which they are seeking overseas assistance.” Mr Ishmael thinks that government must set up the proper structures and a single disaster coordinator that will liaise with St Lucian organizations overseas after a hurricane. That individual will be responsible of making sure there is a competent and efficient setup to facilitate aid from overseas organizations in the event of a major disaster; a mechanism that will remove the bureaucratic nightmare which prevented much needed assistance from reaching hurricane victims and those in need.

STAR Publisher, Rick Wayne (right) in Atlanta for book launching speaks with President Denis Ishmael about Hurricane Tomas Relief effort.

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