When disaster responders gather, horror stories about donations still outnumber the success stories two-to-one, despite efforts from the response community to disseminate guidelines about donations.
The stories can be funny. But the donations -- particularly when they come in tractor-trailer proportions -- can be serious "second disasters" when they block access for emergency vehicles, require costly storage, monopolize volunteer time with sorting and discarding, and even tax the emotional health of disaster survivors.
In 1997, Richard Rix, a volunteer with Northwest Medical Teams International, was sent to Grand Forks, ND in the wake of the devastating flood still infamous for its severity.
"I arrived the first day the area was open for disaster relief. The second day a 747 arrived at the Grand Forks airport. It had 19 containers of donated goods from Minneapolis. When we opened the first two containers, they were loaded with clothes, food, tools, etc. -- all unsorted.
"Only one motel was open at the time, and volunteers had to drive 60 miles because of the expanse of the flooding. Thus, we had no volunteers so we had no choice but to send the 747 back to Minneapolis with the message of what items were most needed, that the donors need to sort the materials into groups, and how donations should be sent."
Kris Peterson, a Church World Service disaster resource specialist, remembers when volunteers traveled to a West Virginia community "just to take the junk out of the area others thought appropriate to send."
The most common inappropriate donation is used clothing, according to members of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster donations management committee. "People continue to clean out their closets, disaster after disaster," said Larry Buckner, the committee chair who is also affiliated with Adventist Community Service (ACS). ACS, along with The Salvation Army, is known for its expertise in donations management.
"You'd think everyone's closet would be cleaned out by now. But evidently not, judging by the amount of used clothing still being sent to disaster sites."
Only a few months ago, when huge wildfires consumed homes, fencing, and acreage in Montana, recovery leaders there were grateful for donations from furniture and hardware stores, as well as cash and personal time from the general public. But the Rev. Tim Meyer, pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in Hamilton, MT, said that "some of the giving had no specific target. For example, trailer loads of clothing appeared unexpectedly."
Last year, a rural town in North Carolina received so many hundreds of pairs of shoes that each person in the town could have taken six pairs and there would still be leftovers.
It could have been worse: Buckner saw one town receive a tractor-trailer load of donations, store it, wait for a disaster in the town that sent the items, and send it back to its original source. Other committee members tell stories of perishable food rotting in boxes that sit on the shipping docks, of recovery groups with tight budgets paying thousands of dollars in customs fees, of survivor of volunteers scaling mountains of used clothing, of opening boxes full of high-heeled shoes, prom dresses, and pieces of broken coffee makers.
Is there any time clothing should be sent to survivors after disaster strikes? Not really, said most responders, with a few naming new, clean underwear as a possibility.
Donations scenarios have improved since the days when truckloads of rotted used clothing sat on the highway shoulder after Hurricane Andrew until they grew so moldy they had to be burned. ACS is often able to establish a a relief distribution warehouse in a community within 24 hours after a major disaster strikes. The Salvation Army continues to sort and manage the inevitable influx of goods. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a sophisticated goods management system. Other denominations have large warehouses in which trained staff pack, store, and ship goods.
Most responders say they try to tell people very specifically and immediately after a disaster what's needed and what's not. But they continue to wrestle with the right way of telling the public: don't send stuff, send cash. The reasons, researched by years of field work, are many and repeatedly proven: if goods can be purchased locally, they boost an economy weakened by disaster, they get to disaster survivors faster, and they are directed toward specific and priority needs.
Still, some compassionate people would rather pack a box than sign a check. If people must send goods, response groups encourage them to find out what's needed and how best to send it. A section of the Church World Service Web site details how to put together and ship "Gift of the Heart" kits that focus on specific needs.
Regardless of the scale of the disaster, donations management should be part of any preparedness and response plan, said Rix. "A donations management plan needs to inform the community or state as to the need for donated goods."
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