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 SOME WAYS YOU CAN HELP
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 was overwhelmed by Harvey donations. Here's some 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 across the country and it's good to support them. 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. 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.
Find Other Ways to Support The Community
Know of a local business that is in the affected area? Buy from them. Consider subscribing to the local newspapers - journalists work over time during disasters and into the recovery. They do very important work.
Call Your Representatives
Donating money is helpful but it can only make a small dent in the amount of aid needed. Call your representatives and urge them to quickly vote for funding for communities affected by recent disasters and to reaffirm their support for disaster related agencies like FEMA and the EPA. You can contact your reps here.
1. Local people
Do you live in an area affected? 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 and works for your community.
*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 across the country. 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! Survivors are going to be doing rebuilding work for a long time and they could certainly use your help. If you are interested in volunteering find a reputable organization to work with.
Depending on where you live it can be expensive and use a lot of resources to travel all across the country. You might want to consider volunteering to help the recovery of a community geographically closer to you. Many other states and territories have ongoing disaster recovery projects and need 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. Raise money for a local organization in need. Volunteer locally. There is need in every single community, use this disaster as an excuse to help!
You can also help the ENTIRE country be better prepared for disasters like this one by calling your representatives and telling them to vote for emergency management funding when it comes up.