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Volunteers feel some have abused services


Last updated 11/8/2007 at Noon

Some community volunteers are questioning whether Fallbrook’s disaster relief center has been jammed by needy local families instead of the victims of recent firestorms that crisscrossed San Diego County.

The volunteers have watched as hundreds of hungry adults and children lined up for hot meals, coffee and grocery bags bulging with snacks and drinks. They looked on as lines formed for free dog food, crates of water, ice coolers and yard tools. They wondered whether many of the people in line were actual disaster victims or just families taking advantage of a strained system.

“There were no safeguards,” Nick Neglia said in a telephone interview after he spent days distributing donated items on behalf of a local church group. “It was a free-for-all.”

Karen Colterman, whose husband Gary volunteered with the same group, said she posed many of those questions later by phone to American Red Cross leaders and officials from several state and federal agencies. She said she didn’t get any reassuring answers.

She fretted that long lines at the relief center might discourage or frustrate those who were truly in need. She said local residents with needs not related to the wildfires should lighten the load on emergency workers by instead seeking help from existing programs.

“In the long run, it hurts those who are deserving,” she said in a telephone interview. “I have a problem with the abuse of the system and it’s not being monitored.”

Some emergency officials and workers acknowledged that there is a potential for abuse in the system.

But they note that their job is to help those touched by disaster and provide access to a network of local, state and federal services. They said they lack time, records and other resources needed to determine if someone is simply lining up for free meals or stockpiling free items that have been donated by the American Red Cross or other agencies or businesses.

Some Red Cross workers, such as Carol Knowlton of Michigan, say their job is to help those who ask for it, not just those who can show they were directly impacted by wildfires that include the 9,500-acre Rice Canyon blaze, which destroyed 206 homes in the Fallbrook area. It is her fourth disaster scene, including two stints at Hurricane Katrina outposts, in recent years, she said.

The quandary played out as the Fallbrook Community Center continued to serve as a hub for dozens of emergency relief groups and government agencies. The center has created a human pulse that has thickened traffic on East Fallbrook Street and frequently clogged that road and others with parked cars.

Access to the center was controlled by a military and law enforcement checkpoint. The center’s interior was sectioned into a maze of desks, work spaces and a child care room. A small city of tents, portable toilets, vans, trucks, motor homes and other vehicles spilled out of parking lots and into overflow areas.

More than 200 children and adults lined up for chicken strips, beans, salad and other foods dished out for lunch, one of three free meals served daily there. Many center visitors left carrying meals in foam containers and plastic bags filled with food.

Six people from an extended family left carrying 11 meals, two cases of water bottles and three grocery bags filled with snacks. A member of the family said they and relatives were hungry after being evacuated for a week.

Three people from another family carried eight plastic grocery bags of food and other items to their car. They said the meals and supplies were needed because food in their refrigerator spoiled after electricity service was interrupted to their home.

Yet some community volunteers were skeptical.

Everett and Jamie Herb jumped into action after their Fallbrook home of the past 23 years was spared from the flames. The pair volunteered for several days handing out dog food, cat litter, diapers, sandwiches and other supplies on behalf of the Community Emergency Response Team.

They would ask people in line about their needs but rarely withheld items and also supplied provisions to those who suffered lost wages or other financial strain but were not directly affected by fire. The couple said they had scolded some people who returned time and time again and noted that shopping carts and strollers were used by some visitors to transport items.

“We cut them off after a while,” Jamie said after she gave a bag of dog food to a man whose job at an auto shop had been interrupted for a week.

“You do notice,” Everett said, finishing his wife’s thought.

He said perhaps the flawed distribution procedures were just one of many twists in an unprecedented disaster. In addition to confronting a huge swath of fires, disaster relief officials were confounded by spotty television coverage and the hasty unveiling of the ‘Reverse 9-1-1’ telephone evacuation system, he noted.

“It put the system to the test,” he said, adding that perhaps better distribution policies and procedures will be in place if another emergency response center is activated in Fallbrook in the future.

County officials say it is uncertain how long the Fallbrook center will remain open. Some agencies may be there two weeks or more, said Karen N. Riccitelli, a county health and human services spokeswoman.

She said more than 1,700 people had been served by one or more agencies at the Fallbrook center through October 29. More than 1,000 people from throughout the county had tapped federal aid programs there, federal emergency officials said.

“Everybody’s here and it’s a community-oriented feeling,” Riccitelli said. “If somebody says they’re in need, that’s what we’re here for.”


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