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The second disaster

Best intentions can do more harm than good

Houston residents walk across the flooded street in Houston, Texas, on August 27.

michelmond / Shutterstock.com

Disasters bring out the best in people. Catastrophic earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, or terrorist events can be horrifying to experience, or even to watch from a distance. They are unsettling, graphic reminders of life’s uncertainty. But even when the ground under our feet dramatically and suddenly shifts, we can count on good people wanting to help.

Unfortunately, there are times when the attempt to help harms instead.

The torrent of spontaneous volunteers and deluge of unsolicited goods after a diaster have become known in emergency management circles as the “second disaster.”

A mass influx of untrained volunteers can endanger their own lives and become an obstruction to the response efforts. Donation management can be as daunting a challenge as debris removal and other recovery efforts.

After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was the recipient of tons of donated clothes and household goods from all across the country. There wasn’t enough warehouse space to hold all the donations, and tons of clothing were left outside to rot. Of the items that were stored in warehouses, many of them remained in storage for years.

Donated goods require a storage place, a distribution point, and many hands to receive them, inventory them, organize them, and distribute them. They also need people to weed through them for items that are actually useful. That is, don’t send winter coats to Florida after a disaster.

These expressions of a sincere desire to help during a time of crisis actually pull resources from areas where those resources are more urgently needed.

So what is a person to do when they see videos of destroyed homes and cities and devastated people suffering massive losses?

Give. Not of your time, or of your goods (until they are specifically requested). Give money to vetted, experienced disaster relief organizations such as the American Red Cross or the Salvation Army. Funds can be transferred online, or even by text message.

It may hurt to hear that an overflow of benevolence and compassion can be a drain on a community’s resources. Money feels less personal. But it is truly the most effective way to help. 

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