Images of devastation along the Jersey Shore in the wake of Hurricane Sandy struck a chord with residents of coastal South Carolina, a region that’s been hit by fearsome storms, including Hugo in 1989.
Seeking to help, three business owners from Hilton Head Island, Beaufort and Charleston promptly launched Operation Southern Hospitality, an initiative to rush disaster aid north.
Items were collected at more than 150 locations, including firehouses, city halls and Piggly Wiggly supermarkets. Schoolchildren adorned the packages with handwritten notes, among them, “We love you, New Jersey.”
“Those of us here know that the time is now when supplies are going to become critical,” Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said, endorsing the project at a Nov. 7 news conference.
Four months later, South Carolina donors are wondering what happened to the estimated $1 million in supplies they shipped to New Jersey. And they’re wondering as well if they have fallen victim to a scam as outrageous as it was enormous — the duping of an entire city.
The Southerners have not received any photos of storm victims opening care packages as they requested. In fact, they’ve lost contact with the Sparta couple who promised to distribute the goods.
Confusion is curdling into anger and disillusionment now that the organizers have learned their partners are being sued by New Jersey for fraud. In a 38-page complaint filed late last month, the state Division of Consumer Affairs accused John Sandberg and Christina Terraccino of funneling cash donations into their private bank accounts.
Falsely claiming to be storm victims, Sandberg, 30, and Terraccino, 27, launched the Hurricane Sandy Relief Foundation on Oct. 30 and collected more than $600,000 through their website, sandyrelief.org, according to the DCA.
Investigators said the couple used $13,000 for personal expenses, including meals at restaurants. The DCA reported the two also amassed $400,000 in supplies but distributed just $1,650 in gift cards.
Evidence suggests that the survival rations, clothes, appliances and high-end merchandise from some of Charleston’s swankest shops never made it to the Jersey Shore. The goods were hauled to a Sparta warehouse, where boxes remain in storage, said Howard Baker, who runs a neighboring print shop.
South Carolinians who worked hard to help New Jersey say they put too much faith in the relief foundation, whose name is confusingly close to the one being led by Mary Pat Christie, the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund.