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Hurricane Victims Mob Relief Trucks

September 30, 1998

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) _ A mob of hungry people swarmed an aid convoy bringing food, water and second-hand clothes from the United States to victims of Hurricane Georges. Relief workers and police beat them back with sticks, to little avail.

In the end, the aid went not to those most in need, but to those who could jump the highest, shoulder the heaviest burdens and bear the most punishment.

The ugly scene Tuesday underscored the desperation throughout the hurricane-ravaged Dominican Republic, as tens of thousands of people entered a second straight week deprived of life’s most basic essentials.

``I threw myself in there, but I couldn’t get my hands on anything,″ said 34-year old Felix Jimenez, a father whose home was carried off by the raging river. ``We have nothing to eat.″

``This makes me ashamed,″ said neighborhood organizer Rosa Cabrera, who had hoped to collect provisions for nearby refugee shelters. ``There are people (here) who aren’t even refugees. They’re just the most able ones, and now they’re going to eat all the food.″

Hurricane Georges crashed into the Dominican Republic on Sept.22, touching off floodwaters that swallowed up hundreds, perhaps thousands, of flimsy homes along a river bank in the Sabana Perdida shantytown.

The storm killed more than 370 people in the Caribbean _ over 200 in the Dominican Republic alone _ and four in the United States. It also drove 7,000 slum dwellers into a half dozen squalid shelters in the capital, Santo Domingo.

A self-made millionaire who grew up in New York, Fernando Mateo, organized relief shipments in hopes of taking aid straight to the people. The Dominican-born businessman said previous disaster relief and government assistance to the poor had been stolen by corrupt officials or manipulated for political gain.

Donated by thousands of Dominican immigrants living in New York City and New Jersey, the provisions were delivered to one of the capital’s most impoverished areas.

But what began as a well-intentioned and orderly relief effort quickly became chaotic.

Hundreds of residents pushed past a chain-link fence at a refugee compound where the aid trucks were parked.

A call to form single-file lines outside the 10-foot barrier was ignored, as hungry people squeezed through narrow cracks or scrambled over the top of the fence despite barbed wire that sliced their bare feet.

After futile attempts to swat back the surging throng, volunteers manning the trucks began to hurl boxes, bottles and bags.

Lydia Manzego’s family came away with two bags of second-hand clothes and two boxes of food _ including rice, orange juice, spaghetti, tomato sauce and evaporated milk. Her teenage daughter Yahai had jumped the fence.

Barrio residents said the government has done little to help, and the shipment from the Americans was the first they’d received since Hurricane Georges hit the island.

City official Alejandro Obrero said the mad scramble for aid showed how precariously people were living even before the latest disaster.

``There’s an immense poverty in the Dominican Republic,″ he said. ``The hurricane didn’t create that. It just brought it bubbling to the surface.″

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