Well-meaning people who want to help Panhandle hurricane victims should avoid going to the hard-hit region or sending donated goods in that direction, officials said Friday.
"Please DO NOT COLLECT donations of goods at this time," county officials wrote. "There are many donations flowing into Bay County and it is IMPEDING rescue efforts."
Escambia County learned during Hurricane Ivan in 2004 that many donated items can go unused, said Joy Tsubooka, spokeswoman for Escambia County.
"We had a lot of things that came in unsolicited, and they ended up in the landfill," she said.
Tsubooka said deliveries of large amounts of used clothing, blankets and random food items take time for volunteers to sort, store and distribute and can take time away from other important tasks.
Tsubooka encouraged anyone who wanted to make a donation to visit a list of organizations vetted by the state at volunteerflorida.org/emergency-management/#partners.
Recovery efforts have also been hampered by sightseers and others who shouldn't be in the area, said Mike Wood, spokesman for the Pensacola Police Department, who returned from Panama City, Florida, early Friday.
Wood encouraged people with specific skills that could be useful in the recovery process to visit the state's volunteer site at volunteerflorida.org.
"It is the worst damage I have ever seen. If they drive over that way right now, there is a good chance they won't even be let in and it will be a wasted drive," Wood said.
Wood said search and rescue efforts are still underway and many of the hardest hit areas are not accessible.
County officials who are helping in the Panama City are are also urging Pensacola residents to stay away from the disaster zone.
"It is a very dangerous place to be and they are trying to focus on the residents in that area. Well-meaning people can end up causing chaos," Tsubooka said. "They are even asking residents who evacuated to stay away."
Tsubooka said Escambia County also learned during Hurricane Ivan that the need for help will persist long after the immediate crisis is over and the news coverage ends. Local residents will have many opportunities to help their neighbors to the east, she said.
"The news stories will stop and people will still need help. People are going to need help over there for a long time," she said.
While money is always the best way to help, professional organizations and organized faith-based groups with a history of disaster response will be appropriately collecting items that are needed and getting them to the right place when the time is right.
For example, the Pensacola Fire Department on Friday announced it was partnering with Florida Professional Firefighters to collect and distribute baby items to hurricane victims.
The local firefighters said items including diapers, Pull-ups, baby wipes, nonperishable baby food, formula, nursery water, sippy cups, bottles, pacifiers, baby clothes and blankets can be dropped off at Pensacola Fire Station 1 from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. starting Saturday through Oct. 19.
Melissa Nelson Gabriel can be reached at email@example.com or 850-426-1431.