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Denton Program Moves U.S. Donations by the Ton

By Staff Sgt. Jeff Troth
Special to American Forces Press Service

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras, Jan. 14, 1999 – Churches and companies throughout America were readying to send food and supplies to Central America in November even before Hurricane Mitch's floodwaters receded. But how to get it there?

Atlanta had 200,000 pounds of food ready. Savannah donations included 50,000 pounds of sugar. A company in South Carolina offered 30,000 pounds of pasta a day. Their calls and others regarding donations went to Joint Relief International-Denton Operations at Pope Air Force Base, N.C.

The nonprofit contractor finds ways to move the civilian donations through military channels -- primarily by airlift, but whatever it takes, said spokeswoman Audra Murray. The relief group coordinates U.S. Transportation Command's Denton program, which allows the military to transport the civilian humanitarian donations worldwide on a space-available basis.

Transportation is one of the biggest expenses organizations face when trying to ship goods, Murray said. Flying donations from the United States to Central America could easily cost several thousands of dollars. That's money groups either don't have or would rather spend on more donations, she said.

Through the 1985 Denton Amendment, named after U.S. Sen. Jeremiah A. Denton of Alabama, the Air Force has shipped millions of pounds of humanitarian aid worldwide at no cost to the donors. The departments of Defense and State and U.S. Agency for International Development jointly administer the program.

Denton operations originally relied on unused cargo space on U.S. aircraft flying into Central America, but they've since expanded to include most areas of the world. Prior to Hurricane Mitch, the program last year moved more than 2.5 million pounds of goods to 38 countries, including nearly all those in Central and South America, and Kenya, Mongolia, Armenia, South Africa and the Philippines.

In the first 10 weeks following the November hurricane, Central America alone received more than 4 million tons of donations through Denton program shipments.

"When the hurricane hit we had civilians all across the United States calling who wanted to donate hundreds of thousands of pounds of aid," Murray said. The large number of donations, in fact, overwhelmed the available military transport space to move them, she noted.

"Calls were coming in from all over the country. Officials at Piggly Wiggly, a grocery store in South Carolina, said, 'Here's two tractor-trailers, fill them with your choice'," Murray added. "In New York City, 3,000 taxi cab drivers placed boxes in their cabs and collected food, clothing and other items. Those are the kinds of things that were happening and still are."

The Denton Program is very successful at getting supplies and food to those who need it, said Marine Maj. Anthony McGinty, Joint Task Force-Bravo deputy J-5 here. "Instead of the stuff going to a big warehouse and sitting for a week while someone decides what to do with it, the food, medicine and clothes go directly to nongovernmental organizations, and they distribute the stuff.

"Many of the organizations have been in country for years, so they know who needs what," McGinty added. "They already have a network in place to distribute the donated aid."

Murray, in Honduras to help assess operations, said she goes out and sees where food and supplies go after they leave the air base. In the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, for instance, she visited the local Rotary Club's emergency operations center.

"A Rotary Club in Rhode Island organized a huge food and medicine drive and sent donations through the Denton program to the Rotary Club in Tegucigalpa," she said. Wives, Boy Scouts and other volunteers gathered at the club to sort, pack and prepare goods for transport to other Honduran Rotary Clubs.

"I asked the Rotarians how many people they had fed and they couldn't answer me. The stack of paper with the names of all those who've received assistance is about an inch and a half thick, and each piece of paper had at a minimum of 220 families on it," Murray said. "It's been an incredible thing to watch. It's really something to see the generosity and goodwill of U.S. citizens."

[Staff Sgt. Jeff Troth of the 49th Public Affairs Detachment (Airborne), Fort Bragg, N.C., is assigned to the U.S. military relief effort in Honduras.]

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