After Superstorm Sandy struck New Jersey in the fall, local groups began collecting relief goods for the thousands of storm victims needing food, water and clothing.
Mayors and elected leaders got involved, extolling the virtues of giving. Some even spun it as a chance to repay the goodwill extended to the Lowcountry after Hurricane Hugo.
But what ultimately happened to the tons of materials collected — including how much got into the hands of the needy — remains a subject of debate.
Lowcountry leaders are trying to find out whether the distribution process is just slow, or if there is something more going on, after state officials in New Jersey last week moved to temporarily bar one charitable organization from soliciting or issuing any more Sandy relief.
The group, known as the Hurricane Sandy Relief Foundation, had been set to receive as many as five train-car loads of goods donated and collected in and around Charleston, then bound for the disaster zone.
The more than 100 pallets contained everything from clothes to food, diapers, batteries, flashlights and other survival needs that were boxed up and ready to be dispersed.
And, while the New Jersey filing shows there is a degree of policing after-the-fact, it also helps to illustrate some of the systematic weaknesses of giving during a natural disaster when confusion, record-keeping, broken infrastructure and unfamiliarity with relief agencies are most in play.
In the New Jersey case, the HSRF was barred from soliciting additional donations and must preserve all monies and items donated to date. According the N.J. Department of Consumer affairs, HSRF and its operators, John Sandberg and Christina Terraccino, have agreed to place the approximately $631,000, plus any donations that come in later, into an interest-bearing attorneys’ escrow account.
Under the agreement Sandberg, 30, and Terraccino, 27, both residents of Sparta, N.J., also must deposit $13,596 into escrow. New Jersey officials allege in a lawsuit the pair had transferred the $13,596 in HSRF donations into their personal accounts.
Additionally, state officials are containing the remainder of approximately $400,000 worth of donated items stored in a warehouse, plus unused gift cards. A phone message left for the pair’s lawyer was not returned.
The case is connected to Charleston because a group of Lowcountry business leaders got together under the banner “Southern Hospitality” to begin raising and collecting Sandy donations. Among them was Josh Watts, operator of MedOne Lowcountry Medical Transport in Charleston. The business leaders set up a collection network that included some 150 drop-off sites, even getting endorsements from local politicians.
“Not only was the help (after Hugo) so important, but it lifted our spirits,” Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said in front of the Piggly Wiggly supermarket at the Ashley Landing Shopping Center during a Nov. 7 press event.
“It’s them today and it may be us tomorrow,” added Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor.
Watts said he got connected with Sandberg after responding to a 1-800 number set up in New Jersey to help with the influx of donations.
On Tuesday, Watts said all his contact with Sandberg was done by email or phone calls and that he has not gotten a briefing or report of how the distribution has been going. His last contact with the group was in December.
So far, Watts said he has not been told by New Jersey officials whether any of the South Carolina goods are involved in the state’s investigation.
“Worst-case scenario,” Watts said, is that the group received the items and did not distribute them, adding that one issue may be how the distribution network was set up and the hurdles it faces.
“Best-case” scenario, he said, is the South Carolina items are not part of the donations in question.
Officials who monitor charitable trends suggest that anyone thinking of making any donation in the aftermath of a natural disaster investigate the history, funding sources and distribution network of any group soliciting aid.
“Natural disasters bring out the generosity in all of us; we want to help those in need in whatever capacity we can, and that usually means opening our wallets,” the Better Business Bureau warned after Sandy.
While the case goes forward in New Jersey, still unresolved is the accounting of Charleston’s donations.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.