Oats From The Underground

In their more candid moments, they refer to themselves as "the underground" -- always in hushed tones, and often with the trace of paranoia that haunts the sleep-deprived. Their base of operations: the shadowy regions of Red Cross headquarters, at 1657 NW Seventeenth Ave. Their mission: to bypass an insensitive bureaucracy they insist cares more about protocol and paperwork than helping the shell-shocked populace of South Dade rebound from Hurricane Andrew.

Meet Sarita Kainen, chief insurgent. "The things I saw at Red Cross -- ach -- it's enough to make your skin crawl. It's just a bunch of people from out of town on big salaries, sleeping in fancy hotels, and leasing cars and having meetings. They have nothing to do with the people's suffering or feelings."

A diminutive woman of manic temperament and luminescent blue eyeshadow, Kainen signed on as a Red Cross volunteer the day after Andrew's roof-hurling rampage, determined to help the storm's neediest victims. Instead, the 64-year-old legal secretary says, she encountered an agency utterly tangled in red tape, unable to employ even the simplest tenets of common sense.

"We'd have people coming to the door offering food, clothing, transportation, anything, and they were turned away," Kainen recounts. "Then people would come to the door asking for all these things. And they'd get turned away, too." It took her all of ten minutes to initiate a small-scale mutiny. While jet-lagged disaster relief specialists from Kansas and Pennsylvania assembled a control center in a cavernous union hall, Kainen prowled the first-floor registration area, taking matters into her own hands.

To hungry victims she distributed sandwiches and chips, often nabbed from the staff's official canteen upstairs. Rather than turning away contributions and volunteers, or routing them through the maze of tables upstairs, she began sending them to shelters. In one instance, she instructed a man who freighted a truck full of water from Tampa to park his car nearby and sent him a steady stream of dehydrated victims. In another she slipped official Red Cross ID cards and car tags to a clutch of volunteers, with instructions to head directly to South Dade. The group, led by real estate investor Mauricio Glaser, wound up delivering more than 50 truckloads of supplies to Homestead residents the weekend after the storm.

Kainen's rule-bending, not to mention her frenetic interpersonal style, did little to endear her to Red Cross officials, who instructed her that their headquarters was not designed to process donations. On Wednesday, her second day as a volunteer, she was informed by a crisis counselor that she was "overtired" and should ease up.

But fellow volunteers, troubled by the perceived inefficiency of the Red Cross relief effort, soon rallied to her cause. "Sarita was the mother of the movement," explains Maria Serrano, who followed Kainen's lead in organizing ad hoc supply convoys. Al Imperial, a Delray Beach business owner, says he's spent most of his stint as a volunteer in the Red Cross staffing unit playing matchmaker alongside Kainen. "We call ourselves the underground because what's happening aboveboard wasn't working," Imperial says. "People were being turned away in favor of paperwork. We just went outside and grabbed them and hooked them up with the people who needed help."

Even the counselor who diagnosed Kainen as mentally frayed was eventually won over. "By the end of the day I thought she was the sanest person there, the only one getting things done. The system, otherwise, was in paralysis," recalls the psychotherapist, who requested her name not be used.

By Thursday, three days after the hurricane, Kainen decided she'd had enough of the Red Cross and set up her own makeshift relief center a few blocks away, in the Kossuth Hungarian Center at 2236 NW Fourteenth Ave. The drop-off point was an overnight hit. Donor referrals from underground members still at the Red Cross quickly stocked Kainen's outpost with food, clothing, diapers, baby food, and a huge truck full of fresh water. Over the weekend, more than 300 storm-ravaged souls received essentials. As of last week, Kainen was still hunched over her phone, putting donors in touch with victims. And her donors were not limited to private citizens. This past Wednesday, a platoon of soldiers from Broward delivered four truckloads of clothing.

Kainen's operation was but one of several "underground" aid stations. Constantly bombarded with TV images of helpless survivors, self-styled philanthropists flooded into South Dade to help. Few have had much patience for the dictates, no matter how sensible, of the Red Cross or the military. "When people decide to give, they want to know they're making an impact," reasons volunteer Imperial. "They don't want to be told to wait, or asked to compile damage assessments. They want to help people in need."

If such efforts seem unassailable, relief officials contend that do-gooders may have been doing more harm than good. They say an overabundance of food, and self-assigned Samaritans, clogged the already chaotic avenues of relief.

Members of the underground counter that for all the rhetoric about massive supplies, vigilante food delivery remained the only way to circumvent bureaucratic bottlenecks in the nascent aid-delivery system. In the immediate wake of the storm, at least, they seemed to have a point. On the Thursday following Andrew, for instance, Red Cross delivery trucks were still being prevented from disseminating food to the most devastated neighborhoods. "We tried to get in there, but the police wouldn't let us," complains Red Cross driver Vince Roberts. "Security reasons, they said. Seemed to think that people would converge on us if we didn't have a police escort."

Roberts was left to camp his truck in a mall parking lot just north of Homestead City Hall, where he spent the afternoon handing out prepackaged military victuals to a line of bedraggled hurricane survivors.

Others simply defied orders. Carol Lustig, a free-lance writer from Aventura, joined a supply train organized by a radio station the weekend after the storm. "We asked the National Guardsmen what was going to happen to the food and they said that it would be stockpiled at Florida International University until they could distribute it. We said, `No way,' and basically headed south on our own. We practically had to get into a fistfight with the National Guard down there to force them to let us deliver the food we brought."

Now, more than three weeks after the storm, few would argue that the regimented relief campaign is neglecting anyone. But Lustig, who spent two days driving door-to-door with handouts, says the South Dade residents she encountered "were desperate. They treated our provisions like gold."

Lustig is careful to note that she did check with the Red Cross before setting off on her own path. "Of course we called," she says. "We called and called and called. The phone was busy every time.

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Steven Almond