By Eric Swanson
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Yards of red tape nearly derailed a Canadian charity’s efforts to help Oklahoma tornado victims.
But the story had a happy ending Monday, when a truck bearing 40,000 pounds of supplies pulled into the loading area at the Gate Church in Oklahoma City. The truck’s arrival prompted organizer Dennis Sauve to breathe a sigh of relief.
“It was very comforting to see the truck was there and how appreciative people were for all the items,” he said in a phone interview Thursday.
Tony Miller, lead pastor for the Gate, did not return a call seeking comment.
Paperwork: Sauve’s encounter with American-style bureaucracy began nearly two weeks ago, when the Canadian charity Windsor Lifeline Outreach started collecting supplies for victims of the May 20 tornado, according to the June 1 edition of the Windsor (Ontario) Star. Within days, donors had contributed 40,000 pounds of food, diapers, blankets and other supplies —enough to fill a 53-foot refrigerated truck.
Before sending the supplies to the United States, volunteers gathered invoices and other documents for many of the items and sent the information to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Sauve said. He said customs officials told organizers that the truck driver would have no problems crossing the border because the shipment was considered as humanitarian aid.
Armed with that information, volunteers loaded the truck on May 29 and prepared to send it to Oklahoma.
But Sauve said customs officials changed their minds on May 30, saying that volunteers needed to supply additional documents for each item in the shipment.
“We were pretty confident with the certifications,” he said. “Where we fell apart was with a lot of the canned food and the rice.”
Later that day, volunteers learned that the shipment would not qualify as humanitarian aid because President Barack Obama had not declared a federal disaster in Oklahoma, according to the Windsor Star. The president issued the disaster declaration on May 31.
Customs officials also told the charity that the truck could enter the United States as a commercial shipment, which meant that all food had to be certified by the Food and Drug Administration.
Sauve said officials told the charity to get rid of a skid of Basmati rice because the United States has restricted imports of that product. Sauve offered to take the rice off the truck, but customs officials later reversed their decision and said the rice could stay.
Nearly 70 percent of the items in the shipment were donated, which sent volunteers scrambling to gather the documents that customs agents required. A broker working on the project helped volunteers estimate the value of each item and certify its country of origin, then sent the additional paperwork to customs.
The truck remained in Leamington, a Canadian city about 25 miles north of the border, for nearly four days while customs officials reviewed the information, Sauve said. Officials cleared the truck for entry on Saturday as a commercial shipment, and the driver headed to Oklahoma.
Customs agents had to be sure the food in the shipment satisfied the Food and Drug Administration’s documentation requirements, said Kris Grogan, public affairs officer for Customs and Border Protection in Detroit.
Grogan said a broker representing Windsor Lifeline Outreach contacted customs agents on May 29 about the shipment. He added that the agency worked with the broker and officials with the Food and Drug Administration to make sure the supplies met federal paperwork requirements.
“From the time we got the initial call in Detroit, we were working around the clock to help the broker get the required paperwork and the registrations under the FDA bioterrorism act,” Grogan said.
He said the truck arrived at the Ambassador Bridge — a border crossing connecting Detroit with Windsor —at about 7:15 p.m. Saturday. Within 30 minutes, customs agents had inspected the shipment and sent it on its way.
Shipping produce: The shipment included a supply of fresh produce from Canadian greenhouses, and volunteers worried that the food would spoil while the truck sat in Leamington. But their fears proved groundless, as the food arrived in Oklahoma in perfect condition.
Sauve flew to Oklahoma City with his church’s lead pastor, Howard Mulder, on Monday to greet the truck when it arrived at The Gate. They arrived at the church just in time to see the truck pull up to the loading area.
“We cut through most of the red tape, and now we’ve got it there,” Sauve said.
Sauve said that Windsor Lifeline Outreach has participated in disaster relief projects before, but the Oklahoma shipment marked the first time that the charity has tried to send supplies into the United States. He said the charity may be wary of tackling similar projects in the future.
“We certainly would have to be a lot more cautious and ask a lot more questions,” Sauve said.