Disasters like Harvey and Irma bring out the kindness in people, as well as acts of heroism.
However, a drive to collect household items or clothing is not a good approach to helping the victims. It actually can make their situation much worse.
Here’s why. The victims are quickly overwhelmed with shipments of clothing, clothing items (and a lot else) and someone needs to accept it, sort it, distribute it, or send it to the dump.
I saw the burden this put on locals in Oklahoma in 1999 after the devastating tornadoes destroyed more than 5,000 homes just in the Oklahoma City area. People lost everything.
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During the months that followed, most of the volunteer effort was consumed in dealing with the well-meaning donations that came to the community. Most of the donations were destroyed or buried in the landfill because there was no need or demand, they were unsuitable, or volunteer time and storage space was exhausted. My organization loaned a forklift just to move the crates and boxes that came into a warehouse, a warehouse that was on loan just for the purpose of storing the shipments arriving daily. Our volunteers spent days sorting clothing alone.
Victims already are being helped to restore their lives with vouchers from service organizations. Victims can buy new clothing and household items with those vouchers. Fortunately we have organizations like the Red Cross, Salvation Army and many others that are experienced and on the ground immediately after a disaster.
I was moved to write because I saw how difficult it was for a community, while dealing with a disaster, to handle the additional burden from well-meaning donations.
I suggest another approach would be:
▪ Give money to one of the many charities that are helping on the ground. Even the loose change from the sofa would be welcomed at the local Red Cross, Salvation Army, UMCOR or the many reputable organizations.
▪ Organize an activity to raise money for an organization.
▪ If you want to have a more personal touch, seek out a personal connection. For example, students could reach out to schools in the flooded area and ask what they need or how Idahoans can help. Even letters that let them know that we do care would be a comfort.
▪ Remember the disaster victims when it is no longer in the news, but when they are still rebuilding their communities.
Kathy Peter retired in 2009 after working 35 years as a hydrologist for the US Geological Survey. She was director of USGS water-science programs in Oklahoma from 1990 to 2002. She serves on the board of the Boise River Enhancement Network and the Idaho Section of the American Water Resources Association.