Volunteers will be needed but not now

Despite graphic need, disaster organizations urge cash donations

BALTIMORE | November 4, 2012

"The best thing you can do is make a financial donation to the responding organization of your choice."

—Michaelann Ooten

Day after day of news coverage on the plight of the survivors of Superstorm Sandy has tugged at the heartstrings of millions of Americans. For many, the needs seem so overwhelming that they are sure the best thing they can do is to immediately personally volunteer.

"I've already purchased a plane ticket," one reader of Disaster News Network (DNN) wrote last week. "I can be in New York this weekend. Where I should go?" In reply, DNN suggested he postpone his plans for several months and connect with a disaster response organization, adding, "there will be a need for volunteers to help rebuild lives damaged by Sandy, but not right now."

Many 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.

Those good intentions turned into disappointment for a busload of out-of-state volunteers who arrived in New Jersey last week. The volunteers did not have any plans for where they were going to stay or help and they were encouraged to go home by emergency responders.

It is the same in almost every major disaster. Scrogin recalls a similar incident from the initial response to Hurricane Katrina. "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 the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, assistant general 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 Superstorm Sandy to last summer's 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. Organizing clothing donations often takes local volunteers and responders away from other more immediate needs and the clothing is seldom actually needed by disaster survivors.

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 the Rev. Alan Coe, a United Church of Christ (UCC) minister in Naples, FL, who was active in the response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. "The recovery process is slow. It is always slower than you would normally expect with a disaster."

- Susan Kim contributed to this article.

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