Hurricane Maria has devastated the 3.4 million American citizens living in Puerto Rico. The full extent of the damages are becoming known and it is clear that assistance is needed. Food, clean water, power (especially for hospitals), and fuel are the most pressing needs. The entire island was without power and it may not be fully restored for 6th months. 80% of crop value has been destroyed. The vast majority of cell towers are down on the island.
This is the type of situation where words seem to fail.
As you watch the news you might be overwhelmed by the images of all the people who need help and you might be wondering what you can do. Great news! Emergency management researchers, including myself, have considered this very question. So, based on the emergency management research and my experience, the following is how YOU can most effectively help impacted communities.
HERE ARE ALL THE WAYS YOU CAN HELP
(scroll to the bottom for links to organizations)
Call Your Representatives
Donating money and volunteer are helpful but they can only make a small dent in the kind of aid needed in Puerto Rico. If you only do one thing I ask that you call your representatives tomorrow and urge them to quickly vote for recovery funding for Puerto Rico. The extent of needs cannot be met without serious federal funding. You can contact your reps here.
1. Donate money, not things.
After a disaster donations flood into impacted communities. While these donations are almost always meant to be helpful, they can actually cause a HUGE problem. People send clothes, food, furniture, appliances, anything and everything that they think someone who has just experienced a disaster might need. The problem is that this quickly can turn into a logistical nightmare. Who is going to receive these donations? Who is going to sort through them? Who is going to match the donations with the needs of the individuals in the community? Where will donations be stored? What will be done with the leftovers? Still not convinced? Read this great piece about donations following the Haitian Earthquake. Or this piece. Or how about this one. Here's one about how Austin is currently overwhelmed by Harvey donations. Here's some peer-reviewed academic goodness about material convergence if you still don't believe me.
The best thing you can do is to donate money to legitimate organizations. Many people legitimately use GoFundMe as a way to help themselves recover. It certainly okay to donate this way but you should always verify who the person is that is raising money. Remember - there's no way to know for sure how money raised through GoFundMe will be used. When you donate money organizations can use it to quickly buy what they need, give it out to people in need, use it to build their organizational capacity, and hold on to it for later in the recovery.
2. Donate local.
Like donations, after a disaster non-profit organizations flood into the impacted communities. These groups do extremely important work during and after a disaster but the reality is, with few exceptions, they do not stay in the communities very long. Many of them are only involved in the response, which is over in a few days. There is a ton of need still in the community when these groups leave. If you donate to a local organization you can be assured that they are going to be assisting the community throughout the entire recovery process. It's important to give donations to groups that don't just help during the response but also throughout the months and years of recovery. I explained why so much help is needed in recovery here in the context of the 2016 Louisiana floods but it's applicable for this situation too.
3. Donate to small non-disaster organizations.
It's definitely logical to donate to an organization that specializes in disasters. There are a lot of great disaster organizations in this country and it's good to support them (see some options below). However, you might want to consider donating to small, local, non-disaster organizations. These are the groups that have been a part of the community for years. They know the people and needs of the community better than anyone. They know that Mike on Cherry Lane needs some extra food at the end of each month and that Judy needs someone to come clear the debris from her yard even though she says she doesn't. Many nonprofits expand the types of needs they help with after a disaster. Just because they're usually a literacy program doesn't mean that they won't expand to have a vital role in their community throughout recovery. Consider donating to local newspapers - journalists work over time going into recovery and they do very important work. If you're local to the community then you probably already know these organizations. If you're not, you're going to have to do some googling. I will start linking some of these organizations at the end of this post when I find them. (If you have recommendations comment them below).
1. Local people
Do you live in an area affected by Hurricane Maria? You're probably not reading this if you are/ you're already helping... but just in case: Have you addressed your own needs? Do you want to help your neighbors? YOU SHOULD VOLUNTEER. Once the rain ends there will be plenty of people around you who need help. You could just go knock on your neighbor's door and see what they need or you could volunteer through an organization. Most emergency management folks will recommend volunteering through an organization in an effort to keep things coordinated. However, there is a long history of people forming their own groups after a disaster and addressing the needs of others as they come up. There are pros and cons to each approach and my personal opinion is that you should do whichever you're most comfortable with. Without internet service I don't have a ton of advice to give you for finding organizations/ needs other than that you should reach out to your local church/ schools who will likely be organizing. If you're in Puerto Rico right now you already know what the needs are, just start doing what you can to address them.
There will also a need for blood donations.
*Do not get in the way of first-responders and if they tell you to go home - do it.*
2. Non-local people
So, you live in North Carolina. You've been through a hurricane yourself. You want to help. I totally get it but stop and think things through. How are you going to get to the affected area? Are you able to fly in? Will you be able to rent a car once you get there? Where will you stay? Hotels are usually full with evacuees, government officials, and other volunteers. Where are you going to get food and water from? Once you get there who are you going to be helping? How are you going to find the people who need help? What resources do you actually have to provide them? Are you actually going to be helping or are you just going to be a drain on already limited resources?
If you're flying into work with an established disaster organization they've (hopefully) answered these questions for you -- go for it. BUT if you're just jumping on a plane and figuring it out when you get there - don't do it and see my next point.
3. Non-local people in a few months
It's been a few months and you still want to volunteer. Great! Puerto Ricans are going to be doing rebuilding work for a long time and they could certainly use your help. If you are interested in volunteering here are some reputable organizations that you can work through. Remember to still always work through an organization rather than just going by yourself.
Depending on where you live it can be expensive and use a lot of resources to travel all the way to Puerto Rico. You might want to consider volunteering to help the recovery of a community geographically closer to you - Florida, Texas, Detroit, South Carolina, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Louisiana, and many other states have ongoing disaster recovery projects and need the volunteers. So, do some googling.
No time? No money? Not close by? No problem.
There are things you can do wherever you live to help your community. Go donate blood if you're able to (there's a nationwide shortage right now). Raise money for a local organization in need. Volunteer locally. There is need in every single community, use Hurricane Maria as an excuse to help!
You can also help the ENTIRE country be better prepared for disasters like Hurricane Maria by calling your representatives and telling them to vote for emergency management funding when it comes up. Talk to them about the importance of the National Flood Insurance Program which is up for reauthorization at the end of September.
Ongoing lists of organizations to volunteer with and donate too.
*You should always vet an organization yourself before you donate or volunteer and check Charity Navigator.*
**I will add more to this list as groups announce their involvement. It can take awhile for groups to commit because they need to wait and see what the community needs and if they are able to address those needs. Feel free to recommend others to me by commenting below or sending me a message on Twitter
Organizations for non-local volunteers:
Y'all, not yet.
Organizations for local volunteers:
Groups currently accepting CASH donations:
Environmental Law Group (Recommended by NRDC)
Latino Climate Action Network (Recommended by NRDC)
Unique Donation Information
- Special note: If you haven't listened to me about the CASH thing. At least don't donate baby formula. Here's a resource for more information and a bit of an explanation from one someone who studies this: It's not good to donate baby formula for many reasons: 1) many people do not have access to clean water for mixing powder formula, 2) donations may prevent mothers from breastfeeding, which is the safest way to feed a baby in an emergency, 3) the donations are often used as marketing tactics by companies and can reduce rates of breastfeeding in low-income populations for years after the disaster 4) the formula donations may not be in the proper language, preparation with too little or too much water can make a baby very sick, 5) breastfeeding increases rates of infant survival in disasters. Evacuations and disasters decrease access to normal supplies for feeding - including access to supplies to clean bottles and teats.The problem is in disasters well meaning groups do blanket distributions that are completely untargeted and that's the major harm -- socially vulnerable families are worse off than they were before in many cases because of this!