The best thing you can do is make a financial donation to the responding organization of your choice.
After riveting disaster images evaporate from TV news, public compassion dries up - just when disaster survivors need focused help.
Months, weeks - sometimes even days - after a disaster, it's hard to recreate the wave of "armchair urgency" people feel when they're soaking in graphic footage. Some people show up early at a disaster site with good intentions but little preparation, said Bernard Scrogin, a veteran responder with Lutheran Social Services of Texas and Louisiana.
"That caused some problems in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina," he explained. "Some volunteer groups down there got a call from people who said, 'hey, 200 of us are getting on buses, and we're coming down tomorrow to do work.' They went down there with no transportation, no equipment - just ill-prepared. Their hearts are in the right place but we're trying to help people realize they need to think ahead."
That means getting affiliated with a responding group - and often helping out months down the road during long-term recovery.
Until then, give cash, agreed responders. "I know people don't like to hear that the best thing they can do is give money," said Tom Hazelwood, executive secretary for U.S. disaster response for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. "The best thing a person can do is to be in touch with their denomination's response office to find about about specific needs. And, frankly, the biggest need is likely to be money."
That applies to almost every incident, from the massive Hurricane Katrina to recent wildfires that destroyed dozens of homes in the southwestern United States.
"It applies in any disaster," agreed Michaelann Ooten, spokesperson for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. "The best thing you can do is make a financial donation to the responding organization of your choice."
"I don't why it makes us feel better to send clothes," she added, alluding to the ever-popular donations of used clothing that have become known as the 'second disaster' among responders nationwide.
Used clothing tends to wind up in disorganized piles, Scrogin agreed, and sometimes other material donations are difficult to distribute as well. When Scrogin and his response teams went to Port Arthur, Texas - hard hit by Hurricane Rita - they took supplies from about 10 churches that had contributed items such as water, food and diapers. "We took all that," he said. "Then when we got there - there's no distribution center. The National Guard was handing out water and ice. Where can we put it? We started to unload it."
"People in cars were driving by to pick up ice and water. They all stopped and started coming over. The National Guard started saying: 'Who needs this? Who needs that?' People started scrambling over a big bag filled with bars of soap. One lady said she needed soap and he threw the whole bag at her. One person got a bag with 30 bars of soap. Someone else had just brought some clothes and dumped them on the ground."
After the initial rush to get to a disaster site or send material donations, there's often a lingering need for long-term volunteers that goes unnoticed.
Long-term recovery is a marathon, not a sprint, explained Alan Coe, a United Church of Christ (UCC) minister for disaster recovery who is responding in New Orleans. "If you live outside this area, you don't hear much about the hurricane recovery efforts any more," he said. "But here in the city it doesn't go away. It won't for a long time. It is right in front of your face every day. The recovery process is slow. It is always slower than you would normally expect with a disaster. Given the magnitude of this disaster it will be a long, slow and laborious process."
The UCC and other denominational response groups are predicting a five to 10-year recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
And though responders caution against showing up at a disaster site too soon, they certainly understand the feeling of wanting to go. As Bernard Scrogin was watching the news about Hurricane Katrina, he fought his own urge to go right away. "You have to plan an effective volunteer effort," he said. "But there we were watching the news. I was trained to be a medic. Here, I'm an old man watching TV with my daughter and wife, and I thought 'I need to be there, I need to help.' I wanted to get on the plane right away."
He didn't. Instead, he chose to help lead response to Hurricane Rita, which he calls "the forgotten hurricane."
"For example, this weekend I was in Cameron Parish. And the devastation from Rita is unreal. You just can't believe it. I've seen floods before but a whole community is just slabs. That just goes for miles and miles and miles."
As the weeks go by, Scrogin said he has seen an organized, ecumenical effort unfold. "It's remarkable, how you begin to see the multiple churches begin to cooperate and work together: Methodist, Lutheran, Mennonite, Amish, every denomination. And I look forward to hearing from people who want to volunteer. I think we're going to have to pitch it every three to six months."
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