How You Can Help After a Disaster

When Disaster Strikes Donations are Needed.

Everyone is moved when they hear the news that disaster has befallen another community. Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc., can suddenly change the lifestyle of a family, community and country.

The National Donations Steering Committee composed of voluntary organizations active in disasters (such as the American Red Cross), federal, state and local government emergency management personnel has developed the following information for people interested in supporting disaster relief efforts.

1. Contributions of Cash — Often the Best Kind of Donation to Make.

Providing a financial contribution to a voluntary agency involved in disaster relief is often the most sensible and the most efficient way of helping the people in need after a disaster. There are several voluntary agencies with considerable disaster relief experience. These organizations have disaster skills in many areas such as disaster needs assessment, disaster clean-up, mass feeding, mass shelter, first aid, crisis counseling, pastoral care, child-care, home repair, family casework, meeting “unmet needs” and many other areas. When the public supports these organizations with financial contributions it helps ensure a steady flow of important services to the people in need after a disaster. Cash contributions to voluntary agencies also make sense for other reasons. The voluntary agency will often spend the money in the local disaster area thus helping the local economy get back on its feet.

Cash donations rather than unsolicited donated goods avoid the complicated, costly and time-consuming process of collecting, sorting, packing, transporting, unloading, resorting, storing, repackaging, and distributing the goods. Cash donations to voluntary agencies help meet peoples’ needs more precisely as the voluntary agency is in a better position to purchase what the people need or can provide vouchers for people to purchase what they need. Cash donations to recognized relief organizations are also tax deductible.

2. Used Clothing is Rarely a Useful Item to Collect for Disaster Relief.

Used clothing is rarely a useful item to collect and send into the disaster area because it is hard to clean, sort, pack, transport, store, and distribute. Mounds of clothing take up valuable warehouse space and frequently end up being discarded. Constructive things to do with used clothing are to have a yard-sale to raise money for the disaster relief organizations that provide goods and services that the disaster survivors really need. Used clothing and other small items can also be donated locally to help community-based organizations in the local area

3. Confirm the Need

The most effective way the public can assist is to support the experienced disaster relief organizations with either financial contributions or in-kind goods and services that the organizations report are needed. Many of the experienced voluntary agencies involved in disaster relief have toll-free numbers for the public to call in order to learn what kind of donated goods might be needed in the disaster area. Often, when large-scale disasters occur in a State, that State’s Office of Emergency Management, working closely with the voluntary agencies, will establish a toll-free Donations Coordination Hotline for the public to call in order to find out what donated goods and services are needed, if any.

It is often a mistake to assume what is needed in a disaster. Over the years, there has been considerable waste of countless tons of clothing because it was collected and sent with no prior coordination. Donors should be wary of anyone who claims that “everything is needed” in a disaster. Try to get more precise information before collecting any donated goods.

4. Donate Through an Organization

Before starting a collection of goods to send to a disaster site, it is a good idea to have a firm plan in place that confirms the goods are needed and that addresses who will receive the goods, how they will be transported and how the goods will be distributed.

Experienced disaster relief organizations base their disaster relief activities on overall disaster situation assessments and detailed needs assessments. Many relief groups, if interested in the donated goods, have some infrastructure in place to store and distribute the goods. Coordination with the relief group is essential so that the right goods are collected, the right amount is collected, and that the logistics issues of transportation, warehouse and staging area coordination, and distribution are fully discussed. Donors will find that it is often most practical to focus on one or two items that an organization says is needed rather than collect a variety of items and have boxes filled with mixed goods.

5. Transportation Must be Planned in Advance

Transportation is frequently a major challenge for donors. It must be planned for in advance otherwise a donor can easily be stuck with large amounts of donated goods and no means to bring it to the recipient agency in the disaster area.

Do not assume unsolicited relief supplies will be transported at no charge or at government expense. The donor has the primary responsibility to find transportation for the donated goods. Local trucking firms may be willing to help in times of disaster, if funds are available to cover part of the expense. Often times donors raise money themselves to put towards the transportation of the donated supplies.

6. Donated Items Must be Well Packed and Labeled

After confirming that the goods are needed and there is a plan to receive, store, and distribute them be sure that the goods are properly sorted, packaged and labeled. If unsure, discuss these steps with an experienced disaster relief organization. Specific content lists should be taped to the side of each box sent. This allows the receiving officials to determine what is in the box without opening it, and gets it to the proper distribution location in a timely manner. Put yourself in the shoes of the person on the receiving end of the shipment and think about making the unloading, unpacking, warehousing, and distribution as simple as possible.

7. Volunteers are Encouraged to Affiliate with a Voluntary Agency Involved in Disaster Response and Recovery

Before the next disaster strikes, get some disaster training. You will be in a better position to find meaningful volunteer work at the time of a disaster. Volunteering through an organization also provides a better chance of insurance and liability protection. There are many tasks to do after a disaster – cleaning up and rebuilding are two of the biggest. Both voluntary agencies and the local government may be aware of opportunities for volunteer labor in the long and difficult recovery phase. Watch the local media carefully to see what volunteer coordination efforts are being organized. Often the Volunteer Center in the area is an excellent source of information about volunteer opportunities after a disaster.

In the immediate disaster response period there are often many people wanting to volunteer at the same time. Remember to be patient. It may not be perfectly clear until a few days after the incident how a volunteer can get involved. There are often greater needs for volunteer help when the community enters the long-term recovery period. Also, note that volunteers should plan to be as self-sufficient as they can be so that they are of little, if any, burden on the disaster-affected community.

Thanks to generous, well-informed and involved individuals like you, relief organizations can make a real difference in the world.

This information is provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD)