Hurricane relief aid being unloaded in Freeport, Grand Bahama island
Hurricane relief aid being unloaded in Freeport, Grand Bahama island AFP / Leila MACOR

In the hurricane-battered Bahamas, the government and charitable organizations are struggling to cope with the incoming flood of donations, a global surge of solidarity that is often excessive and sometimes useless.

At the Christ Episcopal Church in Coconut Grove, the center of Miami's Bahamian community, the first round of donations was organized on September 2.

Since then, shipments have gone out daily to Abaco and Grand Bahama islands, in the northwest of the archipelago that were hit worst by Dorian.

But some of the donations "were not usable," said Father Jonathan Archer, explaining that they received "clothing that was stained or soiled, canned food that was expired."

"We have a few items that we won't send right now, like electrical (appliances)," he added. The two islands have been largely without power since the storm.

In addition to donations, a massive influx of volunteers from international aid or charitable organizations -- not to mention international media -- has caused congestion at the airport in Nassau.

Trips to the two islands, made by rotations of light aircraft and helicopters, are extremely difficult due to debris on the runways, resulting in aerial traffic jams.

On September 5, aviation authorities were forced to stop all takeoffs for several hours in order to regulate air traffic.

"The three Bahamian airports are so congested by private flights that the resulting bottleneck is slowing the pace of delivering relief to those who desperately need it," the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) said in a statement two days later.

The aviation advocacy group urged would-be volunteers not to fly to the Bahamas but to "donate to relief organizations instead."

'Money is the best'

Celebrity Spanish-American chef Jose Andres, whose non-profit group World Central Kitchen distributes hot meals to hurricane victims, echoed the message.

"A lot of people want to help, they should, but money is the best way, through the right NGOs," Andres told AFP.

He recalled going to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Irma in 2017. When he arrived at the port, he saw "containers after containers full of Advil," enough for "the next 100 years."

"Those containers take space, on the ships, in the ports, a space that could be used to bring more important things like generators or live-saving medicine," the chef said.

In order to avoid more useless or inappropriate donations, the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) published a list of 36 of the most-needed products: noodles, rice, peanut butter, diapers, baby formula, nutrition drinks, feminine pads, insect repellent...

The Bahamas consulate in Washington said most people have followed the guidelines.

"We are receiving a lot of things that are necessary, but we are pushing for less clothes," said Bahamian consul general Theo Neilly. "But we accept them if someone donates.

"We are very thankful for the support"

Neilly said the authorities were discouraging private GoFundMe initiatives in favor of donations to the government's disaster relief fund or to reliable NGOs.

Christian Lampin, the Bahamas mission chief for French NGO Secours Populaire, said monetary donations were more efficient than supplying goods which need to be transported to the islands.

"Everything is going to need to be rebuilt and the best thing to do for that is to collect as much money as possible,' Lampin told AFP from Nassau, the Bahamian capital.

Secours Populaire would rely on local partners for reconstruction projects, he said, and "donors will know what we do with their money."