Things you Need to Know BEFORE a Disaster Hits
A Disaster Worker's Advice on How to Respond
If you are like me, you'd heard about other disasters on TV in the past and wanted to help but didn't know how to help or what was the most helpful way to help. Most of my friends know that my church in Joplin narrowly avoided getting hit by the tornado and I managed distribution for several months after the storm. I feel like I can answer some of those questions now and feel like it's important to share this information with anyone who will read it.
1. Donation of Goods.
Donations of goods were desperately needed and appreciated following the Joplin tornado, but hundreds of volunteer hours were wasted sorting donations of trash, garage sale leftovers, dirty clothing, and half-used hygiene items or the slightly less frustrating but still wastefully tedious jobs of tying pairs of shoes together, taping bedding sets into a roll, sorting and folding clothing, etc.
DO NOT DONATE:
Everyone thinks of a few things first: bottled water, toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant. Don't donate these things unless you happen to have an excess- relief centers will be buried in them.
ODD THINGS YOU SHOULD DONATE:
In the first wave of disaster response we did discover urgent needs that were unexpected and I imagine are present right after any disaster:
1. Camping supplies, especially cots & air mattresses. One church donated a case of inflatable pool loungers which were accepted enthusiastically and gratefully by victims who'd been sleeping on floors. Also sleeping bags, tents, flashlights, etc.
2. Crayons & Activity books. For parents spending their days in relief centers and FEMA offices, simple activity-toys are SO appreciated. Giving something to a child that they can call their own after a disaster has destroyed their home is important and worth considering after a disaster. Bulky toys were often unable to be used, since families without a home can't store large items.
3. Caffeinated soda- yes soda. To a sleep deprived volunteer or first responder, cold caffeine is a gratefully accepted donation. Caffeinated soda and energy drinks were very helpful in the fist few weeks.
4. Cough & Cold Medication - crowded relief centers populated by victims and volunteers who can't or won't sleep seemed to incubate illness. Also pain relief was constantly needed.
5. Closed toed shoes - Many tornado victims got out of their home wearing only sandals, and discovered their car totaled. Working in the distribution center I saw many shoes simply worn out from walking everywhere. Before donating, tape or tie shoes together in a pair and label by size.
6. Sunscreen, Bug Repellant, & Chapstick - Needed as much by volunteers as by victims, keeping everyone safe and healthy following a disaster is important.
DO NOT DONATE CLOTHING
unless you can presort, prefold, and prelabel in a permanent way (i.e. individual ziplocs). Sizing, sorting, & folding clothing is such a time consuming task that in a disaster-response situation donating clothes is counterproductive to helping the community. Instead, trying hosting a garage sale and donate the proceeds.
The list above mostly applies to needs in the first 10 days, after that week and a half the long term needs need to be addressed, which for us was: FOOD (fresh, pantry items, canned, anything), BEDDING & TOWELS, SOCKS, & ELECTROLYTES (gatoraid)
Whatever you do, please don't donate your trash, your dirty clothes, your cell phone from 2005, your luxury bath gift set that even you didn't want, etc. TRASH them, don't make an emotionally exhausted sleep deprived relief worker do it for you.
Volunteers willing to set aside their expectations and meet present needs were some of the greatest blessings. Many came to Joplin several weeks after the storm expecting to be chainsawing trees and were disappointed when asked to work inside where we desperately needed help in the distribution center.
In a large scale disaster in a small area, like Joplin, the glamorous tasks of chainsawing trees and clearing roads for emergency vehicles was accomplished by teams of volunteers in days or even hours after the tornado, and what remained was mostly a job for heavy machinery.
If you want to volunteer DO IT, but be willing to serve where needed. No one benefits when you insist on going into the disaster area to clear debris that the government has already scheduled to be removed using your tax dollars, when the relief centers are so short staffed that it takes hours to find and get supplies to families who come in needing help. It takes humility to work behind the scenes, but in a church context- where other Christians have begun the work of feeding and clothing people in need, helping complete that work is a sacred task.
A note on timing- If you are local, consider regularly volunteering one day a week, if you are traveling to the area, try and stay for more than 2 days. Committing enough time to become familiar with a job helps ease the burden on full time relief workers who get pretty ragged after a few weeks.
Every organization has expenses and those explode following a disaster. As much as we were able to use willing hands and generous, well considered donations we also needed office supplies, gas to send trucks of food and water into the disaster area, money to pay the utilities that had gone from a few hours of building use per week to 24/7, etc. Cash was essential to be able to function helpfully in our community. If you want to donate towards something tangible ask the organization what they need and provide them the resources to meet that need. One church called us and when we told them the toilets in our building were in awful shape, they arranged to buy toilets for us. Another church arranged for a nearby appliance store to delivery two freezers.
I hope this is helpful information- I know I learned so much and wanted to pass the information along- or at the very least organize my thoughts to be able to post in the future.