After being snared in a bureaucratic spider web, law officers from across Idaho are coming back early from a relief mission to Louisiana.
“I’m a little miffed,” said Bonner County Sheriff Elaine Savage. Her department helped organize the effort, which sent seven deputies and two moving vans full of donated supplies to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast.
When the deputies arrived, they were essentially told their donations and help weren’t needed. After some wrangling, the supplies were eventually distributed with help from state police. The deputies were expected to be arriving home to Idaho Friday night.
“They’re just so frustrated,” Savage said. “It’s the same bureaucracy that everyone is dealing with.”
Shoshone County Sheriff Chuck Reynalds said the rejection was doubly stinging because the deputies were paying their own way and the entire trip was organized in response to a call for law enforcement help from the sheriff in St. Charles Parish, which is located next to New Orleans.
“It was a paperwork bureaucracy nightmare,” Reynalds said. “These were fully certified law enforcement officers, fully armed and ready to go to work. We weren’t seeking reimbursement. We were just there. … You know damn well they could use all the help they can get.”
Idaho residents emptied pantries, pocketbooks and police departments to help with the hurricane effort after they heard about the relief mission, which was organized by the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office and the Fraternal Order of Police. The deputies had planned on donating the supplies and then helping out with law enforcement duties in St. Charles Parish. Shortly before departing last week, Bonner County Sheriff’s Capt. Jim Drake explained the idea behind the journey.
“They need help,” he said. “They’re calling for backup.”
Like any call for backup, speed is essential. The convoy was organized over Labor Day weekend. The deputies left Sandpoint with one truck full and another half-full with donated goods. A stop in Coeur d’Alene brought more supplies, plus two Shoshone County deputies volunteering for help and hauling a trailer full of donations from citizens in their county.
At each stop, the group was loaded with more donations and food. Moscow had an entire U-Haul trailer-full waiting. “The same thing in Lewiston,” Bonner County Sheriff Savage said. “Their back parking lot was just stacked high with donated equipment and food. We were getting very full.”
Ditto for Boise. “We were struggling to get the door on the truck closed at that point,” Savage recalled.
Residents and police departments gave bedding, baby food, underwear, law enforcement supplies, socks and even spare change. About $20,000 was collected and sent with the officers. A police officer from Nampa, as well as his father, joined the caravan to help with driving. The group also included the chief deputy and jail commander from Idaho County.
After leaving Idaho, the convoy headed straight for the Gulf. They checked in occasionally with law enforcement officials in St. Charles Parish and became increasingly alarmed at what they were being told, Savage said.
“We kept in touch with them all along. We were assured, ‘No, please, come on, we need the stuff,’ ” Savage said. “As they got closer they started to get a greater reluctance to accept the goods we had. There was a real reluctance, almost a ‘We didn’t think you’d really do it.’ “
Shoshone County Sheriff Reynalds said it was federal officials who turned away the donations.
“When they got there, FEMA did not want these goods. Most of it was brand new,” Reynalds said of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “It was really a bad scene.”
The deputies were stunned, Reynalds said. “It just blew them away.”
Finally, the Louisiana State Patrol stepped in and made sure the donations were given to needy families. The Idaho deputies then went and offered to help the St. Charles Parish Sheriff with patrol duties, as they had been asked to do. At first, the deputies were paired with local officers in two-man patrols. “They did provide some relief,” Reynalds said. “One night they were guarding a warehouse. The next day they were on patrols.”
But then the Idaho deputies were told they were no longer needed. The officers volunteered to pitch in with patrols in neighboring New Orleans, but were thwarted by the stacks of paperwork and special requirements from federal officials, Reynalds said.
“I know there’s a lot of legalities and things, but I just feel that firefighting and law enforcement are basically the same nationwide. Bad guys are bad guys and fire is fire,” Reynalds said. “Finally, the sheriff (Savage) and I just decided, ‘Let’s just bring the people home. It just wasn’t worth it.”
Before leaving, the deputies gathered contact information from a variety of hurricane relief shelters in the area that still needed help. Mounds of donated supplies remain in Idaho and some of the deputies are talking about making a return trip to haul the goods, Savage said. So many people across Idaho donated dollars and supplies, she added. It would be wrong to give up.
“We’d be backing out on our promise by letting their shortcomings get in the way,” Savage said.
Reynalds’ frustration was evident when he discussed the relief mission Friday. But he said he felt uplifted by the outpouring of support from his department and from residents of Shoshone County.
“The entire county is proud of these guys,” Reynalds said.
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