In the wake of destructive hurricanes like Mangkhut and Florence, there will be a number of disaster relief agencies on the ground, and you’ll probably want to send useful items to these organizations and help the victims of these terrible calamities. But before you buy a grocery cart full of relief goods or raid your closet for blankets and old shoes, our suggested course of action for acting on this impulse would be: don’t– at least not until you’ve determined what items you shouldn’t donate, and what you can do to aid disaster victims, whether locally or abroad.
In this article, read up on the items you shouldn’t send, and what you can do instead.
1. Don’t give clothes
It may sound apathetic and counter-intuitive, but the problem with giving clothes (used or new) is that once they reach ground zero of any calamity-stricken area, they have to be sorted, and in some cases, cleaned.
You may think that surely someone will appreciate and have need of the sweaters, pants, t-shirts or other clothes you’ll send, but remember that you have no reassurance that it’ll actually get to the exact person or persons who need them at the right time, or in usable condition. It could be weeks, even months before your donated clothing gets to the victims, and no one would want to wear clothes that aren’t much cleaner than the clothes they’re already wearing. Worse, they might no longer be appropriate for the given season once they finally reach the ground and end up in landfills or in thrift stores lining someone’s pocket.
Even if you pre-wash and vacuum-pack these items, the relief agencies at the site must make sure they’re inspected, and properly and fairly distributed. Not only can donated clothing potentially waste time, it can also take away relief agencies’ limited manpower from doing more important tasks.
2. Don’t give shoes
Another popular donation item is shoes. Many people see barefoot victims of floods, earthquakes, hurricanes or similar disasters and immediately assume they’ll need shoes. While this thinking is noble, as with clothes, shoes that are donated likewise must be sorted in terms of their size, use, gender and usability – some “well-meaning” donors may even donate their spare designer footwear or fancy shoes they only wore a couple of times for special occasions. These are nice thoughts, but would people who live in flood-prone areas have any use for a pair of knee-high leather boots or oxfords?
Do remember also that if the relief effort you’re donating to is for a calamity in another country, consider that your “American-sized” shoes won’t fit the victims you’re trying to help. Size 10 to size 13 shoes are of no use to victims whose average foot size ranges from 6 to 8. Also, NEVER donate any cast-off footwear that is damaged or dirty; disaster victims may have already been deprived of their homes and livelihoods, so the last thing they need is to be deprived of their dignity. And just like clothes, shoes that go unsorted and unused will only end up in landfills and could potentially contribute to future disasters like flooding. But if you are really intent on donating useful footwear, donate flip-flops, which are universally useful instead of specialized shoes.
3. Don’t give blankets
Blankets do provide comfort to victims, especially after a disaster that exposes people to cold or flooding. Curiously, whenever a calamity strikes, blankets seem to be the last item to come in short supply. That’s why most large donations of blankets remain unused, simply because the victims already have their own or have already been given blankets before other donations arrive. One example of this was after the earthquake that hit Kobe, Japan, in 2011. Relief workers there lamented that there were “too many blankets” among the relief goods, likely coming from the help extended by the local Yakuza (yes, as in the crime syndicate) which was already handing out relief goods before government relief agencies even arrived.
Also, note that most blankets are bulky items that take up valuable space in relief containers or supply columns. Specialized blankets made for emergencies and disaster response, like space blankets, are more compact and lightweight, and are stored in great numbers by governments and disaster agencies.
4. Don’t give toys
In any disaster (man-made or natural), children will always be among the victims, so why not send them toys like, say, a teddy bear? Again, assumptions like these and the resulting flood of donations doesn’t make the work of relief agencies easier, or the welfare of the victims much better.
This was the case in the Sandy Hook school shooting, and the resulting outpouring of support for the victims and their families that came in the form of 65,000 teddy bears. The small town was inundated with the stuffed animals, and no one knew how to handle the massive donation. Only the town’s tax assessor became the self-appointed custodian for the teddy bears, along with the balloons, flowers, artwork and care packages that piled up just hours after the incident. In just three days, the small town was bursting with items from well-meaning donors. So many teddy bears were sent that they had to spend for a warehouse to store the teddy bears, and the huge excess of these toys ended up getting sent to other children’s hospitals and orphanages across the country, and some were sent to Afghanistan, Jamaica and Haiti.
What would have been more beneficial? Financial assistance to help cover the funeral costs.
In the field of psychology, there is such a condition known as “helper’s high”, where people perform altruistic acts, simply because it makes them feel good. Studies have shown that performing “selfless acts” aren’t purely “selfless”; the people who donate or do anything out of altruism actually get a “payback” in the form of a rush of feel-good endorphins, better mental health and in some cases, an improved physical well-being. Some people may even become “addicted” to helping out, to the point of neglecting their own problems.
While helping out and doing good deeds without the expectation of reward is good per se, there is such a thing as helping out too much, to the point where the donor’s own needs are neglected and the recipients’ efforts to get back on their own two feet are undermined. Should you ever feel the persistent need to donate, don’t do so mindlessly and don’t adopt a “give ‘till it hurts” mindset.
5. Don’t give pet food or pet stuff
They say assumptions are the mother of all f**kups, and this case proves it: some days after 9/11, a news reporter observed that the rescue dogs didn’t have any booties and their feet were getting scorched by the hot pavement of NYC streets. What came next? New York Police precincts were flooded with donations of doggie booties.
The sad truth is that despite there being several reasons why rescue dogs need to wear booties at ground zero, their handlers still hesitate to put them on the dogs because the dogs need to use their claws for traction.
Pet food and other supplies can also have a similar effect; relief agencies can be inundated by donated pet food, and these could go unsorted and unused, in most cases sitting in warehouses until they expire.
6. Don’t give medicine, canned food or bottled water
You’d think these items would certainly be welcome at disaster sites and be readily taken in by relief agencies, but like all physical donations canned food, water and medicine need to be sorted. Some people may think that it’s ok to clean out their medicine cabinets without checking dosages or looking at the expiration dates, but that’s a risk that relief agencies can’t overlook. Remember that medicine, canned food and bottled water all have expiration dates, and relief agencies simply can’t spare the time and manpower to check and sort each and every donation to prevent items like these to bring more misery to the victims. Yes, bottled water also “expires”; not the water in it per se, but the plastic bottle it’s stored in eventually degrades and leaches chemicals into the water. Such is the case with the 20,000 pallets of bottled water that went unused in Puerto Rico for months, and which were withdrawn by the local government after complaints of foul taste and stomach ailments.
7. Don’t give “surprise packages”
Possibly the worst “well-meaning donation” you could send is an unmarked box or package filled with “goodies” that aren’t identified or sorted. Even FEMA strongly advises against sending unsolicited mixed boxes of relief goods. The manpower, time and effort needed to open hundreds or even thousands of unmarked care packages then inspect, identify the contents, sort the useful stuff from the junk, then repack and distribute to the disaster area is both a logistical nightmare and a waste of resources – yours, the government’s and the relief agencies’.
8. Don’t just show up and volunteer
If you’d like to volunteer, don’t just show up at the site or at a relief agency and offer help. Go through the relief agency’s “recruitment” process and invest the necessary time and effort to be vetted. Check the community billboard, website or social media account of the relief agency concerned. Find out what kind of help is needed and where you can sign up, don’t just show up at the site and pester random people about wanting to help. You’ll only get in the way of the relief effort and could end up needing assistance yourself.
In view of all the “Don’ts”, here are the “Do’s”:
Do some research
Get to know all there is about the disaster, the relief effort and the relief agencies that’re helping out the victims. Find out exactly what they need and give it if you can, and only if it’s requested. NEVER assume and send what you think disaster victims might need. Donate to the right organization concerned, see to it you’re donating to an accredited organization, and not just any random group or individual that claims to represent or promises to send your donation to the disaster victims.
Do donate money
When in doubt as to what you can donate, simply give money. As impersonal as it is, money is the best, most useful and safest donation you can make to any relief effort. Monetary donations don’t have to be sorted and can quickly be used to mobilize manpower, keep supplies flowing, give direct financial assistance to victims and even sustain or resuscitate the local economy at the disaster zone.
Do place your trust in the relief efforts
When donating to relief agencies, whether NGOs or government entities, the best you can do to assist their efforts is to give whatever amount you can spare and trust them with it. Relief agencies like the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and government institutions like FEMA are trained and experienced in dealing with disasters and know exactly what’s needed and how to use funds to do the most good.
Any relief effort could itself become a disaster if not managed well, and resources can be easily wasted. As a concerned citizen and willing donor, the safest, most practical way to do your part is to simply donate money to the agencies involved. Resist the impulse to send anything that needs to be sorted, and don’t show up at the site without formally signing up.
When in doubt, give money to the relief agencies, as they will likely have plenty of the necessary supplies at ground zero that’s already been sorted and paid for – partly by donations. You don’t go out of your way to do “something special” for disaster victims, as doing so could undermine relief efforts and only waste resources; be sure to donate the “right” way or you may end up doing more harm than good.