What's the best way to help?

What's the best way to help people affected by Hurricane Katrina?

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | August 30, 2005

"They are in search-and-rescue and will be for the next several days."

—Beth DeGraff

What's the best way to help people affected by Hurricane Katrina? Cash donations are best, agreed responders.

Monetary contributions allow responding organizations to purchase exactly what is most urgently needed by hurricane survivors - and to pay for the transportation necessary to distribute the supplies.

Material donations - especially used clothing - tend to pile up and become a 'second disaster,' said John Walker, spokesperson for Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS).

"One of the major reasons not to donate material goods like clothes is they get stockpiled," he said. "During several recent disasters - during the hurricanes in Florida, for example - stuff would pour in and they would have to throw things out."

In Alabama, where relief supplies were being distributed, local response leaders were refusing clothing donations but encouraging cash donations and gift cards to major local outlets. "Clothing is so intense to deal with in volume," said Mike Dillaber of Volunteer Mobile in Alabama. "We don't have the personnel to process those types of donations."

Needs can change daily, responders said, and it boosts local or state economies to purchase items nearer to the disaster site. The supplies get into the hands of people who need it more quickly, too.

"Sending financial aid is really what's needed most," agreed Beth DeGraff, spokesperson for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee. "That way we can purchase what is needed. We don't have to truck a bunch of stuff down there."

The problem with packing and sending donations without going through a response group is that, often, those donations have no way of getting to people who need them the most.

Right now, showing up to volunteer at hurricane-stricken places is also ill-advised, said John Walker, spokesperson for Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS). "We really tell you not to just show up," he said. "They are in search-and-rescue and will be for the next several days.

"New Orleans has locked down until Monday, and has just escorted film crews out," he said.

In every disaster situation, the compassion to respond forms immediately, pointed out Walker. "However," he said, "it may be compassionate but it's not helpful to show up without being affiliated with an organization thatís already officially approved."

Responding groups are working closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency through the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD), said Walker. NVOAD coordinates planning efforts by many voluntary organizations, and member organizations provide more effective and less duplication in service by getting together before disasters strike. Once disasters occur, NVOAD or an affiliated state VOAD helps coordinate communication between members and other voluntary agencies. This cooperative effort, honed through the last decade, is regarded by responders as an effective way for a wide variety of volunteers and organizations to work together in a crisis, he explained.

"So the thing about just showing up is that you can easily get in the way of other agencies," said Walker.

Dillaber, also chairperson of the Mobile County VOAD, said he simply could not use unaffiliated volunteers. "We have no power. Grocery stores aren't open. There is no available fuel."

Both Walker and Dillaber encouraged volunteers to affiliate themselves with a group - and look at needs months from now. "We're going to need people for three years," said Dillaber. "In New Orleans, they'll be needed for five years."

Funds are needed for organizations that help people make a long-term recovery long after the response phase is over. Some faith-based and voluntary agencies will also use cash donations to help meet needs that will go unmet months from now, after emergency relief groups have left the scene.

For people who want to do something hands-on, several faith-based disaster response groups offer online guidelines covering how to assemble kits of relief supplies.

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