Have you been watching the terrifying images of Hurricane Florence battering the East Coast and the even bigger Typhoon Mangkhut slamming Southest Asia? Assuming you're out of harm's way yourself, if you're like many people, you may feel the urge to do something--anything--to help. That's a great instinct, and indeed the millions of people affected by these two giant storms will depending on the kindness of strangers for a long time to come--just as any of us would if our own homes were in the path of a natural disaster on this scale.
But, it turns out, there are good ways and bad ways to help people during a crisis. In fact, some things people do with the best intentions actually do more harm than good. Here are a few things relief workers on the ground wish more people knew about how to help people after a storm or other event.
1. Don't send items--even useful ones--to a faraway site.
A helpful video by CBS News explains exactly what's wrong with sending items, even apparently useful items such as clothing, toys, or even bottled water, to people who've lost everything. For one thing, with thousands of people responding and sending what they can, relief workers wind up with large amounts of donations at the disaster site. Those donations need to be stored somewhere. The need to store a large number of items is always a challenge, as you know if you've ever downsized from a large home to a smaller one. It can be a real nightmare in a locale where a natural disaster has destroyed many buildings and rendered more inaccessible, and where whatever safe space is available is already filled with people evacuated from their homes. (More than 2 million people have been evacuated in Guangdong Province, China, alone.)
Beyond being a challenge to store, items such as clothing can be a problem in themselves. After a hurricane hit Honduras, a plane carrying relief supplies was unable to land because of clothing donations--inexplicably including winter coats--piled up on the airport runway. In Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami, a huge pile of clothing arrived. Overburdened relief workers couldn't sort it, and lying there on the beach in the heat, it quickly became a health hazard in a place and time when people's health was already challenged. Eventually, local officials had no choice but to pour gasoline on the clothing and set fire to it. For reasons like these, relief workers sometimes refer to the arrival of clothing or toys--such as the 67,000 teddy bears that arrived in Newtown, Connecticut after the Sandy Hook shootings--as "the second disaster."
2. Donations of money are always best.
For lots of reasons, a donation of cash is nearly always better than a donation of clothing or other supplies. Relief workers or agencies can buy what they need, when they need it, in manageable quantities, and near the disaster site. By buying from local businesses, they can give the local economy a much-needed boost. On top of that, after a high-profile disaster such as Florence or Mangkhut, there are nearly always businesses or other organizations offering to match cash donations so that your money can double its power to help.
Even without matching, your money usually goes farther if you donate it as cash than if you spend it on items to send to a disaster site. For example, kindly Americans sent about 100,000 liters of bottled water to help people out in West Africa, at an estimated cost (for both water and shipping) of about $3 a liter, or a total $300,000. That was enough to serve 40,000 people with no access to clean water for one day.
But local relief workers, using water purification kits, could have supplied that same quantity of water for only $300. If the people who sent the water had sent the money they spent instead, they could have helped people for 100 days instead of just one.
It's important, of course, to be choosy about the organizations you give donations to. Scam charities inevitably pop up after any disaster, so check into any charity before you send money. Charity Navigator is one way to find such information as how long a charity has been operating and how much of the donations it receives go to its charitable work, as compared with how much its spends on administrative expenses and fundraising--and how much its highest-paid executives earn.
3. Find ways to make it personal.
Many people choose to give items instead of money after a disaster because it feels less impersonal. But there are ways to feel a personal connection with disaster victims without sending them your cast-off clothes or pallets of bottled water. For example, rather than send your clothes and cast off toys to a disaster-stricken area, use them as the core of a yard sale to raise money for victims and invite other people to donate items to the sale, then send the money you make selling these items. (If you have items to donate because you don't want them anymore and you don't want to have a yard sale, then give those items to a charity near you instead.)
Reach out to victims on social media. Twitter has hashtags for every area affected by the storms, and Facebook has created crisis response pages for both Florence and Mangkhut. The desire to make a personal connection with disaster victims is human and healthy and shows your capacity for empathy. Just don't do it by putting your clothes or other items in a box and sending them there.