Best Way to Respond to a Disaster

By Katherine Kerr, APR

The photos, videos and stories coming out of the Texas Gulf Coast are doubtless going to be heartbreaking and devastating. Homes, businesses, schools and government property will be damaged and destroyed and lives will be lost.

As a generous country, often the first impulses of people seeing those images are two things: 1) to donate stuff to help those affected, and 2) to rush into the disaster zone.

As a former reporter who covered several hurricanes, tropical depressions, tornados and floods and later a communicator for social service organizations that responded to disaster, please do not do either.

First, organizing a clothing, toy and food drive at your church or with your civic group becomes a logistical problem. It means someone has to transport the stuff to the disaster zone, which means it needs to be delivered some place and then someone has to assume responsibility for storage, sorting and distribution. That can become a problem in the midst of an already major problem. The folks reeling from the shock of a disaster don’t need more problems.

Also, clothing is personal. Not everyone shares your fashion taste. Or your size. People who have lost everything need underwear. New. And they want to choose clothes that will fit them and help get them through the next few days and weeks. Choosing their own clothes gives them some measure of control when their lives have spun out of control.

Donating toys and especially stuffed animals is a sweet and kind gesture. But storage and distribution are problematic.

Instead of donating food, water and toys, consider donating money to existing agencies have a track record in responding to disasters, such as the United Way, the Red Cross, Salvation Army Habitat for Humanity and various faith-based disaster organizations like Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Lutheran Disaster Response.

Online, cash and check donations don’t require transportation and storage and are more efficient ways to help people.

If you don’t want to give money, consider gift cards from big box stores such as Walmart, Target, Lowe’s, HomeDepot and smaller retailers like Ace Hardware and McCoy’s. Again, this gives flexibility to people who are trying to recover and rebuild to buy exactly what they need. Send those to agencies and churches in the disaster zone to distribute to people on the ground. And, it contributes to rebuilding the local economy.

Second, please don’t rush into the disaster zone equipped only with good intentions and a trunk full of bottled water. You will probably take up a hotel or motel room needed by a family who has lost their home. You might run out of gas, food and water and because the disaster zone is lacking utilities, now you’ve become part of the problem.

Instead, connect with disaster agencies as recommended before for guidance on how you can best help. If you are skilled at construction, electricity and plumbing, your gifts of labor will be needed in the long-term disaster response because recovery will take months and years.

Finally, while most of the media attention will be focused on the primary disaster zone along the coast, Harvey’s impact will cover a huge part of Texas including Williamson County. There is still a family in Taylor, Texas waiting for their home to be rebuilt  after the 2015 Memorial Day flooding. That was over three years ago!

People living in other areas that are ignored by the news media are likely to experience flooding with the predicted sustained rainfall. Trees might fall on homes and high winds or tornados could damage or destroy homes. These individuals and families will be just as devastated and traumatized spotlighted by the news media. They deserve and will need your help.

In most every community there is a coalition of organizations known as VOADs, Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters. They are comprised of local agencies that are organized to respond to disaster and need your support and labor. Find one in or near your community or a community that is hammered by the storm.

If shelters are opened up at schools and churches, evacuees will need your help. But, check with those operating the shelters to see how you can best assist. Don’t assume you know what is needed and show up with stuff.

Many people will bring their pets, which creates an additional challenge. Pet crates and food will be needed to take care of four-legged evacuees. Again, ask how you can help.

Your good intentions are appreciated. You don’t want to  create more difficulties for those trying to help people struggling to figure out their futures.

Be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Please.

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