When a natural disaster happens, many of us want to help. On-site emergency responders welcome offers of aid, especially money, but say it’s important for people to understand how they can best help.
"Each event is different," explains Pat McCrummen, a spokesman for the American Red Cross. "In the hours right after a flood, hurricane or tornado, our first responders need to work through the immediate crisis and evaluate what will be needed as the community moves forward."
Well-intentioned people may show up or start collecting food or clothing without realizing that volunteers require direction and donations of material goods have to be managed.
How to help
If a crisis occurs, your best plan is to sit tight temporarily. "No one would ever say that volunteers are unwanted," says Dante Gliniecki, volunteer coordinator for the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency. "People just need to understand that it may be a day or two before we will know how best to put volunteers to work."
Follow the local news for reports of what is needed. Partly because of experience gained after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, organizations have become quite sophisticated about using the media and the Internet to let their needs be known.
In Port Charlotte, Fla. (pop. 46,451), an area hard-hit by the 2004 hurricanes, the community lost all of its power, but volunteers could log on to laptop computers in a mobile command center parked outside the library. By inputting information such as location, skills, and hours available, volunteers were sent where their abilities were most needed.
If you hear about a request for material goods, act right away. If you wait, chances are that others will have already given, and your donation will no longer be needed. Also, don’t donate clothing that you would be ashamed to wear yourself. People who have lost their homes don’t need the additional indignity of being given someone else’s raggedy clothes.
If in doubt as to how to volunteer, make a financial donation instead. An effort is always made to spend money collected for specific disasters with merchants in the disaster area. This enables emergency responders to purchase exactly what is needed for a community, and the local economy gets a desperately needed boost in business.
What you can do now
If you’d like to help out during times of crisis, all the experts have the same advice: Volunteer before something happens. "Get involved early so that you can receive appropriate training," says Margaret Melsh, director of Ready to Respond volunteers in the San Francisco Bay area. "Call the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, or do an Internet search for ‘volunteer center,’ specifying your town or county," she says. "At the volunteer center websites, you’ll find a complete list of the types of areas where help is needed."
Volunteer Match has a website that allows you to enter your ZIP code and sift through numerous volunteer needs, or call 1-800-VOLUNTEER or visit www.1800volunteer.org for additional possibilities.
Remember, too, that volunteers are needed for a long time after the initial crisis.
"The greatest need for volunteers may not be apparent until weeks after the disaster when new needs have arisen," says Kristin Buckley, manager of disaster and international initiatives for the Points of Light Foundation in Washington, D.C. About 128,000 people volunteered after hurricanes in Florida last fall, but this help was spread out over many months.
In addition, there is one final contribution that is always welcome: "Send notes with words of encouragement for the volunteers onsite," one emergency responder says. "When you are cleaning out flooded school classrooms filled with mud or helping to feed hurricane victims day after day, it really makes the work easier when we walk past a wall with children’s pictures and personal letters of thanks."