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Chaos as crowds overwhelm Red Cross

Saturday 15 August 2015 | Published in Regional


SAIPAN – A desperate crowd of about 2000 people on Saipan forced police to close an important airport route when people spilled into the road and fought with each other as they waited for relief assistance from the Northern Marianas chapter of the American Red Cross in the wake of Typhoon Soudelor.

Officials described the event as “chaotic” and “overwhelming,” saying the disturbance began around 7.30am and was shut down by 11.00am.

Hundreds were turned away as 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 turned up.

Police executive director Maryann Lizama said: “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.

“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. Operators and passengers heading to the airport were disrupted because they were being careful not to run over anyone.”

Lizama said she diverted three-quarters of her police force to the area.

She said she met with Red Cross and told them that, without an organised system, the whole thing needed to be shut down.

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

American Red Cross Northern Marianas chapter executive director John Hirsch said they had called in the first 250 people who had earlier registered with 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 2000 people here.”

Hirsh said they are trying to manage by giving assistance packages to about 250 to 300 households a day.

That meant within about three or four days Red Cross should be able to take care of about a thousand families.

Red Cross is providing financial assistance based on the type of damage homes took from Typhoon Soudelor and are also providing bulk distribution of hand sanitisers, 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 the first appointments and the next 250 were told to come the next day, and so on.

“We knew obviously that this wasn’t the best situation. We all knew that. So we pretty much ran out right away. 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. It all takes time, especially with the destruction that we’ve seen.”

He said people were sleeping overnight at the Red Cross location.

“It’s really heartbreaking to see families wait here in line for several hours when they don’t really need to. We have 4000 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.

Hirsh said the Red Cross is also assisting individuals who may not be able to come to the chapter office such as persons with disabilities, the elderly, and people with special needs.

He urged the public to “be patient. At the same time he discouraged households from sending family members separately so they can get more supplies.

“Please don’t do that,” he said.