Clothing donations: The trouble with trousers

BY JIM KETCHAM | Baltimore, MD | May 20, 1999

Disaster news coverage is filled with heart-rending pictures on television -- a family in shock stands in front of what used to be a house and as they gaze over the wreckage one of them blurts out "All we've got now is the clothes on our backs."

It doesn't matter whether the disaster was a tornado, a hurricane, a flood or a fire. The response is nearly always the same: well-meaning people from all over the country donate truckloads of used clothing. Is this a happy ending to a tragedy? No, it's what denominational and governmental relief offices call "the second disaster."

Just ask the Rev. Dan Whitacre of the Church of the Brethren in Salisbury, PA, a town hit by three tornadoes in three days in 1998. "On Monday, an anonymous caller said he had some used clothing to donate to tornado victims and asked if he could drop it at the church, at least for now." Whitacre agreed.

"That guy had several garbage bags filled. The next morning someone with pickup truck load wanted to leave more, and others kept coming. We filled up the entire first floor of the church building by the end of the week.

"I asked for volunteers to come help sort and size the clothing and made attempts to get the message out that any persons needing clothes could get them from church. By Friday it was obvious we simply couldn't take anymore donations because we were receiving a far greater amount than we could possibly handle."

Two weeks later, about 30 persons had come to look over the clothing and church volunteers were still trying to sort the rest. Fortunately, the Fire Company Auxiliary from nearby Cresaptown, MD, promised to sell the remainder at a yard sale, with proceeds returning to Salisbury.

"All kinds and qualities of clothing came in," Whitacre remembers. "Some folks were very careful to sort and provide nice stuff, but not all. We had to tell the volunteers to throw out clothing they would be ashamed to wear. Maybe 20 or 25 percent of the clothing was rejected due to holes, stains, what have you. Somebody even brought in a torn, stained mattress.

We just loaded it up and took it to the dump." Ironically, some people send clothing rather than cash because they are afraid the cash might not get to the right place, or get used up in administrative costs. That is actually more likely to be the fate of clothing donations.

And Salisbury is far from unique. Chris Peterson of West Virginia is an in-kind donations specialist for Church World Service. "Clothing takes us valuable space needed for essentials like food, medicine and water," she said. "The other thing it does is take up valuable time. Clothing usually comes in small quantities, making it hard to distribute effectively. When it comes in a semi truck, it takes 20 people three whole days to unload, sort and prepare. And then maybe half of the things are useless.

"After Hurricane Hugo in 1989, a convoy of huge semi's was sent from the Atlantic City area to South Carolina," with spontaneously donated goods. "There was a really intensive heat wave and Highway 17 in South Carolina was down from four lanes to a lane and a half the whole length of the state. There were boats washed up on the road and electric lines down. Power company workers were literally camped out along the side of the road, trying to get power back.

"When the convoy came along and clogged the road, emergency equipment couldn't get through and power workers couldn't continue their vital work. Everything in that convoy had to be dumped along the side of the road: clothing, frozen hot dogs, everything. It all became garbage."

Donations collected by radio stations in the Twin Cities of Minnesota for flood victims in the Red and Minnesota River Valleys suffered a similar fate in 1996. On-air personalities plugged a daylong collection at downtown Minneapolis' Target Center, saying "anything and everything" was welcome.

Unfortunately, storage space was at a premium due to flood damage. And while some trucking companies donated shipment of the unsorted and unwanted goods to local warehouses in affected areas, Peterson laments, that "useless things filled valuable space that could have been used for housing and childcare." Makeshift warehouses were packed to the roof, but no one knew exactly what was in them and just where it was. Ultimately, a sizable portion of the donations ended up in landfills.

Larry Buckner, National Director of Disaster Response for Adventist Community Services (ACS), has a striking memory of the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. "The highest point in Homestead (FL) was a mound of clothing that couldn't be used because by the time people got around to it, it had been rained on and exposed to all the elements" of August in Florida. Fleas, mites or mildew on even a few pieces of clothing can render an entire shipment useless.

Even when items such as used clothing reach the intended recipients, they may actually slow the recovery process. Tony Oliver Smith of the Anthropology Department of the University of Florida at Gainesville maintains close contact with Peruvian victims of and earthquake and massive mudslides in 1972.

He reported that survivors who received inappropriate or "less than good" donations suffered mental stress for six months to a year longer than survivors who were appropriately helped. Bob Arnold of the Church World Service Disaster Response Office (CWS) says "One of the reasons our material resources program has contracted is our belief that by sending material resources in you can often hamper recovery and retard economic recovery particularly. If the local manufacturers and retailers don't need to meet that need, demand drops and that affects jobs and income.

What's to be done about this "second disaster?"

People who really want to help need to find out what is actually needed and how to send it. The Salvation Army, the American Red Cross and other relief agencies usually ask for specific items. If an item hasn't been requested, say disaster response officials, don't send it.

Ben Curran of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) helps to train state and local agencies in donations management. His solution is simply stated: "We can't repeat it enough -- send cash! A cash voucher (from a local disaster response organization) is most suitable for clothing needs. It allows the individual to have some independence and freedom to purchase what they really need. You could go through half an Armory and never find what you need."

FEMA is also working with states to encourage them to set up toll free numbers with trained operators who can screen calls and act immediately on good offers in the wake of a disaster. One of the first tests of this process occurred this month in the wake of the Ohio floods.

"Folks seem not to be ready to take the official word that victims need things like water, Pedialyte, etc. I guess they always think 'We'll send some stuff WE think they'll need,'" Peterson added. Last year, her office found more than $2.1 million worth of goods. For every dollar donated, $175 worth of goods was provided, thanks in part to generous manufacturers.

"The real expense and pain comes when you have to mud-out, and replace things like furniture, vehicles, carpeting, draperies and work tools," she explained. "People have sewing machines, or tool kits they no longer use and these are the kind of donations that might really help."

Curran says agencies also have to work harder to communicate exactly what they need. "There's no question a lot of us are willing to do something. If an appeal went out for something more constructive, you could turn the entire disaster into a gold mine of resources. People need cleaning materials, truckloads of wheelbarrows and tools. Ask for them."

Clothing manufacturers, retailers and groups like CWS and ACS are also forming new alliances to provide exactly the right kind of clothing needed, in the sizes and volume necessary.

The Adventists were able to provide a drop shipment following Hurricane Andrew, Peterson said, of "something like 10,000 size five boys' underwear." And why were these necessary? "Children often regress after a disaster," he explains, "even losing their potty training. With no water available, they were burning dirty underwear every day and needed replacements, fast." ACS was able to do it because they have trained crews who sort and pack clothing donations year round.

"The largest need is usually for infant's clothing," said Buckner "Now a number of manufacturers are donating quantities of new clothing for the population in need."

But for those who still want to empty closets, try contacting Adventist Community Services at (800) 381-7171 or on the Web at "If people will just call in advance, we'll tell them what's needed, what's not needed, and where to ship it," adds Buckner.

ACS is also working in areas with a history of large unsolicited clothing donations to develop collection centers where clothing can be pre-sorted for size and type and packaged for later distribution to a staging area just outside a disaster area. Organizations working on the disaster can then draw on the resource, knowing they'll get what they need in good condition.

Back in Salisbury, Whitacre says he'd take clothing donations again for a local disaster, "but only for a day or two. Then we'll have what we need."

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