By Katherine Kerr, APR
Before going to help in a disaster zone, here are some things you should know.
First, it isn’t about YOU. Being a volunteer in a disaster zone should not be about YOU. Don’t plan on taking selfies of yourself doing hard work and posting them on social media. Don’t exploit disaster victims to make yourself feel better. Don’t go because you want to talk about how hard it was, how God called you to do it and to let other people know what a good person you are. None of those are good reasons to go into a disaster zone.
Disaster response work is hard. And nasty. And difficult. And dangerous. And expensive. It requires you to be flexible and adaptable. If you’re worried about breaking your nails and make-up or you have special dietary needs, you probably are not cut out for disaster work.
If you decide to go into a disaster zone, get a tetanus shot.
The reason is that you are going into a place where there is ALL kinds of nastiness. That water you’ve seen people wading through on TV? It is full of gasoline and a stew of other chemicals, sewage and critters including fire ants, snakes and other live and dead creatures including human beings.
That cute video of the guy catching the catfish in his living room? My first thought was “Ewww! I hope to he doesn’t plan to eat it because who knows what that catfish is contaminated with.”
You will not be staying in a five-star hotel or even a one-star hotel unless you are really, really lucky. All the people who are now homeless are in those places. They deserve to be there.
So you need to plan to be self-sufficient. That means staying in your own car, RV or tent in whatever dry spot you can find and figuring out how you’re going to feed yourself, keep yourself hydrated. Don’t expect to have access to Starbucks or Wifi. This is really roughing it.
Right now in disaster zones that is what people who live there 24/7/365 are trying to figure out. The last thing they need to worry about is how to “host” you.
If you have friends or family in the disaster zone, first ask if they want you there. Or, could you be of greater help by giving them a place to stay far outside of where flood waters have made their living room furniture float and their roofs have been bashed in by trees. Really listen to what they say and how they respond. Remember, they are in shock and are trying to determine how they are going to make it through the next few days and weeks. You might be more helpful later.
And, since it is Texas during August/September and beyond, expect it to be hot. Very hot. And humid. And there will be mosquitoes and all kinds of discomfort. And since you’ll be self sufficient, that means you need to accept that you are not likely to get daily showers or be able to wash your clothes on a regular basis. \
If you really feel like you need to go into the disaster zone, please connect with one of the many experienced and established disaster response organizations, including the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and various faith-based organizations sponsored by many of the Christian denominations and other faith traditions. While it might seem bureaucratic to fill out forms and wait for assignments, they know what they are doing.
Go knowing that you will be moving heavy soggy furniture and refrigerators and freezers full of rotting food. You’ll be busting out water-damaged sheetrock and insulation and shoveling out several feet of nasty silt and icky stuff that has floated into homes and businesses. If you’re not physically able to do that, please think carefully about whether you can help or if you’ll be a hindrance.
If you’re convinced you can help by cooking and making sandwiches for volunteers, first responders and disaster victims, check to see if there is a place for you to do that kind of work and if your help is really wanted or needed. Can you bring your own food and cooking equipment? Do you have a health certificate required for people who work in food service? The last thing that is needed is for a bunch of people to come down with food poisoning.
Disasters bring out the best and worst in people. Right now, there are sham fundraising sites promising to raise money to help disaster victims and instead the money is going into the pockets of unscrupulous individuals. While Harvey was still churning in the Gulf, people were buying up domain names for Hurricane Harvey disaster response because they knew that most of us would be moved to respond to the heartbreaking images now streaming across our TVs, computers and cell phones. If you really want to help, your best bet is to donate to established disaster agencies.
Also, unscrupulous people move into disaster zones and further victimize people already traumatized by disaster. You’ve probably heard about the fly-by-night contractors. They will be heading into the impacted areas offering their “services” to help people move, clean out and repair their homes. Too often they require payment for services ahead of time and they and their trucks move on to another neighborhood without doing any work.
Also, sexual predators show up in these kinds of events. These are people who prey on naïve volunteers and disaster victims. If you are not asked to complete a form that requires a background check, you should avoid aligning yourself with that group. Legitimate organizations invest in checking out volunteers to protect all volunteers and clients.
If, for whatever reason you think you need to go, please go well prepared.
Gas up your car as close to the disaster zone as possible. And, take additional fuel with you, which is dangerous to transport. Take nonperishable food that can be easily opened and is packaged for maximum protection for two or three weeks. Take lots of bottled water. Some for you and some to share with others. Take a first aid kit and stock up on your medications.
Take tools that will be needed like shovels to muck out homes that have been flooded, gas-fueled chainsaws to cut tree limbs, wheelbarrows, trashbags, trashcans and cleaning supplies. Take gloves, galoshes, masks to protect yourself from mold and other germs. Take heavy-duty rain gear. Wearing all that stuff will be extra warm, but you need that protection.
Take cash. With all the flooding, electricity is out. Credit and debit cards will not work. Cash is always good. That, of course, creates a different type of risk of which to be mindful.
Even though you are a volunteer and people will be grateful for your help, no one is likely to pick up the tab for your room and board. The reason is simple: that money is needed to help people get back on their feet. If you really want credit, keep your receipts and claim it on your itemized tax form. If you’ve decided by now that boots-on-the-ground volunteering is not for you, thank you for recognizing that your gifts lie elsewhere.
Cash, checks and online donations are what is needed most now. Or, buy up some gift cards from HomeDepot, Lowe’s, Ace Hardware, McCoys, Walmart, Target and grocery stores and send them to churches and social service agencies in the affected areas. Giving disaster victims flexibility to determine for themselves what they need most is important.
Please do not collect clothes, toys and food to send to the disaster zone as getting that into the hands of people in need is a logistical nightmare. Tons of donated clothing sent to New Orleans were burned in parking lots because there was no plan for storage, sorting and distribution. That was a waste of effort for all involved and cash donations would have been more beneficial.
Don’t focus just on the major metro areas; remember the small rural towns that are outside the media spotlight. Go to Google Maps and find a county that you haven’t heard of and send them some help.
Thanks for giving of yourself for all the right reasons.
Editor’s Note: Katherine is a former newspaper reporter who covered numerous disasters in her 11 years of journalism experience. While working for nonprofit social service organizations, she oversaw communications efforts for flooding in Central Texas and Hurricanes Katrina and Ike and the long-term disaster response for each of those events.