Making disaster donations count

BY SUSAN KIM | Washington, DC | May 20, 1999

In Oklahoma, an overabundance of canned green beans awaits consumption by the survivors of last week's massive tornado. The beans were donated by a grocery chain, but nobody seems to know for sure which. That's because the trailer truck transporting them was donated by someone else altogether.

In Kansas, where tornado damage was also rampant, the Salvation Army has accumulated enough clothes to fill a 50-foot warehouse. It will take volunteers more than four months to sort them out.

In New Orleans, pallets of medicine meant for survivors of six-month-old Hurricane Mitch expired in a warehouse and had to be thrown away when shipping to Central America was delayed.

In Tennessee, a disaster response official is still wondering what to do with 40 bolts of luxury fabric that a donor insists Kosovo refugees can use to make clothing and curtains.

Why do some donations miss their mark?

Kathy Guy, donations coordinator in Kansas for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said the media is at least partially responsible. "The media -- particularly television -- is pretty bad about sticking a microphone is people's faces right after a disaster so they can film them saying 'we need everything.' Well, the best bet for people who need everything is to affiliate themselves with some group that can respond in an informed manner," she said.

Immediately after disaster strikes, people are bombarded with heart-wrenching images. Research shows that the media often reduces disaster coverage to a depiction of fleeting but heavily symbolic depictions -- collapsed buildings, oil-drowned birds, raggedly clothed survivors - that spur an immediate and often fervent reaction from the public.

But such good intentions don't necessarily lead to great results. For example, in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the most oft-depicted image was oiled shorelines, spurring well-meaning but uninformed volunteers to start immediately cleaning beaches. In the end, scientists found those efforts caused more environmental trauma than leaving the oil to weather naturally.

Many response organizations are aware of the importance of communicating accurate information about donations. They may install toll-free numbers and post websites within days after disaster strikes. They issue press releases, vie for television and radio time, and post announcements in newspapers.

But sometimes people read that information -- and then follow their own intentions anyway. The U.S. Agency for International Development Relief Line (800-872-4373), established for people wanting to assist Kosovo refugees, has carefully scripted its answers to determined donors. The relief line has received more than 46,900 calls to date -- averaging about 350 per day. Anyone wishing to make material donations is asked to consider making a financial contribution to a non-government agency of their choice.

But fully half still insist on making material donations. Why? Because people still believe it's the only way to really make a difference.

"It's pretty evident when you see the refugees in New Jersey on the news," said Bill Hipkiss, a member of the Rock Creek United Methodist Church in Chance, Md.

Several months ago, Hipkiss helped lead his church's effort to ship donations to the Honduras, first being overwhelmed with clothing donations, then trucking items out of state with pick-up trucks scrounged from the congregation, and finally securing donated shipping from Chiquita Banana. He acknowledges that the whole process succeeded against logistical odds with hard work, good luck, and answered prayers.

Now the church would like to sponsor some Kosovo refugees in America, perhaps renting homes for them and provide assistance in other ways. "The congregation recently saw a video, filmed by Chiquita Banana, of hurricane survivors in the Honduras receiving their shipment of water. "It was incredible to see," said Hipkiss. "There was no telling how many lives were saved by our water."

But Mabel Valdivia, who has been working at the Honduras office of the Adventist Development Relief Agency for several months, said that warehouses there are full of water, food, and clothes -- when really what's needed is locally purchased building materials.

"Cash donations not only directly help individuals, they boost the entire local economy when goods are purchased here," she said. "And the results of cash donations usually reach survivors more quickly than other commodities, which must first be sorted or stored in a warehouse before they're distributed."

Even guidelines issued directly from a disaster site may not convince those determined to donate goods. Dr. Mayer Heiman, president of the International Hospital for Children in New Orleans, continues to ship medicine to the Honduras, despite several pallets that expired and had to be thrown away after a shipping delay to Central America, and despite the fact that this debacle was documented over national press wires.

Heiman also secured donated shipping from Chicita Banana, as well as Dole. "Our persistence has more than paid off," he said. "We've shipped 11 containers to the Honduras in the last two weeks, and we're working around the clock to ship more."

But Clay Hall, coordinator for disaster response and communications with the Tennessee United Methodist Conference, wishes that people wouldn't try to "go it on their own" when it comes to donations.

"Please don't do that," he said. "It's not that your gift isn't good enough, it's that we can't deal with the human needs when we're trying to handle an over influx of goods."

Donors don't like being told 'no,' he added.

"Before I got involved in disaster work, I'd get offended when I heard about not sending certain items. I'd think 'what -- isn't my stuff good enough?' But now I realize that part of long-term response is channeling people's good intentions into what's genuinely helpful."

In Oklahoma, the donations hotline (800-996-6552) has no choice but to say 'no' -- no more material goods, but cash donations are still badly needed. "The warehouses of voluntary organizations, plus the state's multi-agency warehouse, are stuffed full. We've got a database waiting list of more than 600 in-kind items, and in six days we got more than 700 calls offering items," said Connie Brown, a FEMA donations coordinator.

If people still insist on sending used clothing, the best outlet may be their local animal shelter. Karen Taylor, from the Humane Sociey of Chittenden County, Vt., said that most animal shelters are constantly in need of blankets, towels, old sheets and pillowcases, washable pillows, and stuffed animals -- the very items often most unwanted by at disaster sites.

As with any donation -- people should still call first to make sure their goods are needed. "It's important to make sure that your donation can be used and won't just end up being a disposal liability," said Taylor.

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