As Americans watched images of the east coast being slammed by Hurricane Sandy this week, many not in the affected area wondered what they could do to help. You may have even started putting together clothing or canned goods to send to the survivors, or planned on taking a trip to volunteer.
The problem is, sometimes well-intentioned donors do more harm than good. Cast-off clothes and mounds of unusable food pile up, forcing relief workers to spend valuable time sorting through donations and trying to find ways to get the items to the affected areas. Spontaneous volunteers – those who haven’t been specifically called to an area to assist – can also create issues. For example, a disaster area will have damaged infrastructure and limited housing leading to logistical issues.
If donated goods and time are not the answer, is there anything you can do to help disaster victims? There are ways to make sure that your help does the most good for the most people. The following tips will ensure that when disaster strikes, you will be part of the solution rather than inadvertently compounding the problem.
- Cash is always best – Cash will allow voluntary agencies working in affected areas to buy exactly what they need to help people while stimulating the local economy. It also allows large voluntary organizations to buy needed items in bulk, thus stretching the value of your dollar.
- Verify the need before making an in-kind donation – Make sure that voluntary agencies or communities need the goods you are providing and that they have a way to get those goods to the affected area. Remember that shipping is expensive and every dollar that goes to shipping costs is a dollar that doesn’t go toward purchasing needed items. Consider holding a yard sale with your unwanted items and donating the proceeds to the relief effort rather than donating the items directly.
- Do not go to the affected area unless you are requested – Volunteer help is needed in disaster. However, large numbers of unannounced volunteers often do more harm than good. Call the local volunteer hotline where you are interested in volunteering and verify:
- That volunteers are needed
- When volunteers are needed
- Where volunteers are needed
You can also consider aligning yourself with a disaster relief organization before disaster strikes so you will be ready for deployment when needed. Trained affiliated volunteers are able to go into a disaster area right away without draining local resources as major voluntary organizations will be self-contained.
When disaster strikes, your help is both needed and appreciated when given the right way. Be prepared to volunteer before the disaster and consider donating cash rather than goods. Providing help effectively is always the ultimate goal of disaster relief.
For information on how to volunteer and donate responsibly to survivors of Hurricane Sandy, go to http://www.fema.gov/volunteer-donate-responsibly.