JACKSONVILLE, Ark. — Baby food from Israel. Blankets from Egypt and India. Tents from Russia. UNICEF school supplies sent via Denmark. Generators from China. Rice from Thailand. Bottled water and detergent from Tunisia.
The Little Rock Air Force Base has become the U.S. clearinghouse for an extraordinary international outpouring of relief supplies for Hurricane Katrina’s victims.
The hub presents a once-unimaginable spectacle: the richest, most powerful country in the world receiving foreign aid.
The relief supplies are flown into Jacksonville by the various countries. From there, the goods are unloaded by Air Force personnel, catalogued, warehoused and then dispatched by tractor-trailer to the places along the battered Gulf Coast that need them. The Federal Emergency Management Agency decides what goes where and when.
The work is being coordinated by Chris Weeks, a logistics expert at DHL International, the overnight delivery service. DHL was hired by the U.S. government.
From Sri Lanka to Jacksonville
Six months ago, Weeks was in Sri Lanka to assist after the Asian tsunami killed thousands and left thousands more homeless.
Sri Lanka and Little Rock “are definitely different, but the climate is not that different, the products coming in are not that different and some of the logistical issues are really quite similar,” Weeks said. “This is the reverse situation, though. It’s usually the U.S. sending out to developing countries.”
The Little Rock base is home to the 314th Airlift Wing and was selected as the nation’s depot for international aid because it is relatively close to the Gulf Coast disaster zone — 300 miles away — but far enough away to have escaped damage from the storm.
FEMA put out a list of what items were needed in the disaster zone, and foreign countries responded according to what they could offer.
United nations hub
On a recent day, an Israeli cargo jet sat bracketed by Egyptian and Russian planes on the same tarmac, all unloading hundreds of tons of food rations, baby formula, tents and other items. Flights were scheduled to arrive this week from Peru, Finland, Romania, Chile, South Korea, Luxembourg, Slovenia and Greece.
“I’ve been blown away,” said Air Force Lt. Jon Quinlan. “We’ve been working a lot of hours, but it’s worth it to be part of something this big, this important.”
Things have not always gone smoothly. Last week trucker Cheryl Neal of Jacksonville, Fla., said she was sent to a place in Louisiana with meals that were no longer needed there. She drove around until she found an American Red Cross site, and dropped off her cargo.
The confusion cleared over the weekend, and the aid now is being processed more efficiently, Weeks said Wednesday.
“It’s like an industry of its own,” he said, “and we’ve got to keep it clean, keep it moving.”
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