“Go,” said a voice in my head. “Go!”
I had been glued to the television and various news or weather-related websites all day, trying to keep up with the latest information about this storm. Initial projections were for a fairly mild hurricane (as hurricanes go); but as the storm slowed down, the dangers rose. Sure enough, levees soon began to overflow, rivers backed up, and neighborhoods that I had come to know and love were inundated. I felt frustrated and helpless, a thousand miles away from the community that, until recently, had been our home, the place where our children were born, and was where so many of the people who are a part of our extended family lived.
“Go,” the voice said, getting stronger and more insistent. It took everything I had not to listen to that voice. The urge to jump in the car and head south was nearly overpowering.
It is almost instinctive, the desire to want to help someone in need. When a large disaster strikes a community, we know that help is needed. Most of the time, we have resources to offer. Sometimes, we have skills that are needed. I understand the desire, that instinct, to jump into action, to drive to that community, to do something—anything—to help. Our national media is very good at filling our television screens, front pages, and Internet sites with compelling images and stories of people in need. How can we, as a people of faith, not respond?
But, most of the time, the worst thing we can do is listen to that voice that tells us to immediately “Go!”
Among disaster responders, people who just show up to help are called “unaffiliated volunteers” or “spontaneous volunteers.” Other words, however, get more quickly to the point, among them “distraction,” “headache,” and “nuisance.” The fact is that just about anybody who shows up to help arrives needing something. Not everyone thinks about whether there will be places to buy gas, food, and water in a disaster zone. Many people arrive without tools, rather assuming they will be made available. Almost everyone arrives needing a place to stay and something to do.
I have had the privilege of sitting down with pastors and local leaders after disaster has hit their community. They tell amazing stories about how the community rallied in response. “We pulled together and took care of each other,” is a common refrain. These stories also typically include a few details about people who came from out of the area to help. Sometimes, these spontaneous volunteers called first to ask if their help was needed. Sometimes, they called as more of a “courtesy” to inform folks that help was on the way. Even if they had the real courtesy to ask, however, most pastors and community leaders do not say, “No.” But they should.
The task of finding something for spontaneous volunteers to do often falls on our pastors. Most take this on because they think they should, even though they have much more important work to do, such as checking on church members and being available to the wider local community, not to mention taking care of themselves and their own families. After one disaster, I met with several church leaders and told them it was okay to say “No” to all the offers of help that they were receiving. The mood in the room shifted, as if a weight had been lifted. One pastor then admitted that she would much rather be helping the people of her church connect with relatives or find a place to stay than arrange work or housing for yet another out-of-town mission team. It is common for more people to spontaneously show up than can possibly be accommodated. In these circumstances, people spend a lot of time standing around or searching for something to do; sometimes, they’re even turned away. The question we should all be asking, in circumstances such as these, is: Whose needs am I really trying to meet?
The same question is also appropriate before we begin gathering donations to send to the disaster zone. Unfortunately, some people use a disaster as an excuse to clean out their garages or the back of their closets. Threadbare clothes; used underwear; random, expired, even unlabeled prescription medicines; old, half-empty cans of paint; broken Christmas lights and other junk: all of this stuff and more pours into communities following a disaster. The time it takes to sift through it all to determine whether there is anything worth keeping is time that is not spent working with people who need help. The space that must be found to sort, store, and display or dispose of these things becomes a burden when space is already at a premium. After the city of Joplin, Missouri, was struck by a tornado, I remember a story in the news about how communities in Alabama, which had been hit by multiple tornados less than four weeks earlier, were sending donations on to Joplin. In my head, I imagined a convoy of semis hauling donated junk that nobody wanted from one disaster to another.
News media are good at laying bare the devastation of a disaster. The stories and images they share move us to want to help. Only in recent years have they begun to tell the other side of that story: that not all help is helpful, and that sometimes it only increases the burden on a community that is still reeling. Communities that are hit hard by disaster depend on outside assistance for their recovery. But with the exception of professional services offered by trained First Responders and organizations such as the Red Cross, the kind of assistance that is needed while the television cameras are still there is limited.
In the immediate hours and days following a disaster, trained responders are saving lives and meeting the most basic of needs: providing shelter, food, water, and medical care to those who have been directly affected. These services occur during the emergency phase of disaster response. The phases of a disaster and an appropriate response are not clearly separated. The emergency response often begins while the disaster is still occurring. And it typically continues after relief begins. Once basic survival needs are met, attention turns to securing property. Damaged roofs get the blue tarp treatment; downed trees are cut and hauled to the curb; flooded homes have water-logged carpet—and sometimes furnishings, clothes, flooring, and walls—removed so the homes can dry. During this relief phase, neighbors are most needed as people pitch in together and folks who can come and go—and who know the local area—are most useful.
This need for neighbors provides an exception to the “don’t go” rule. If people can get to a community hit by disaster in half a day or less—taking into account road hazards, closures, detours, and other unpredictable conditions—then their presence may be helpful. They can get there, work for about half a day, and still get home that night. They also must be completely self-sufficient, carrying all of the tools, protective gear, sunscreen, bug spray, food, gas, and cash necessary, plus two to three times the amount of water or sports drink needed. Anyone meeting all of these conditions still must check to see whether people are even being allowed into the community, or if a curfew is in effect, before loading their vehicles. Finally, they must have a point of contact—a place to go or a person they’ve already connected with—before setting out.
For the rest of us, those who are more than a few hours’ drive away, the waiting can be difficult. In the next phase of the recovery, things seem to slow down. Most of the people impacted by the disaster, and the government, civic, and faith-based organizations involved in the response are, in reality, extremely busy assessing needs, gathering resources, and planning for the long term. Homeowners begin to file with their insurance companies. FEMA focuses on registering people who may need assistance and guiding them through various assistance programs as appropriate. Local governments, community organizations, churches, and other agencies begin working to develop the infrastructure needed to support a long-term response.
Both the individual and organizational work can take several months to complete. Communities, therefore, are not typically ready for out-of-town mission teams in any significant number until at least three months after the disaster. When they are, the response shifts into the recovery phase. This gives those who want to “Go!” and help plenty of time to plan appropriately and make a trip when their service is most needed. Rest assured, unmet needs in the community will long outlast the headlines and news crews. The longer the recovery takes, the more important mission teams will become. The most important thing we can do with that desire to “Go!” is channel it into planning a trip many months, even a year, into the future. Tap into the desire and the energy of your friends and neighbors at home, work, school, and church and make a commitment while the story is still hot to go when interest will have cooled.
At the same time, appropriate donations are needed, and giving is one important response to disaster. To organize or participate in a drive for needed donations, follow a few basic guidelines. Make sure your donations have a destination before you give them. Find out what is really needed. If you wouldn’t want it yourself, don’t send it to someone else. And never, ever send clothes (unless they are specifically requested—and then, send only new clothing).
Another option is to assemble cleanup buckets or other kits for Church World Service. These kits are collected year round and stored in a warehouse. When disaster strikes, they are quickly shipped into communities so that folks have the basic cleaning supplies they need to clean up their homes. Large disasters quickly deplete the supply of cleanup buckets available. So, while the buckets assembled after one disaster may not make it to the affected community this time, they are vital for replenishing stock and ensuring that there are enough buckets ready to go to the next time they are needed.
If you still feel the urge to clean something out, skip the garage and the closet—and go straight to your purse or wallet. The best donation after any disaster is a financial donation. Cash allows responders to flexibly adapt to meet the obvious and the unanticipated needs that arise after a disaster. When an unexpected semi arrives hauling pallets of water, funds can be shifted to purchase food or materials. When a family walks through the door of a relief center needing gas for their generator, a gift card can be given. When a group of people are ready to climb roofs and install tarps but a decent ladder can’t be located, one can be purchased. Through ecumenical contacts as well as historic and emerging partners, mainline denominations participate in strong response networks. Through these relationships, financial gifts made to each denomination’s disaster response offering and Church World Service are immediately available for critical needs. Other grants are targeted to support the work of response partners as they prepare for the long-term recovery.
There are a few more things we can do after a disaster. We can be in prayer—for those who have been affected by the disaster, for those who are responding, and for many, many more to respond when the time is right. We can care enough to follow the response beyond the headlines, to continue to seek information about what’s really happening, and look for creative, appropriate ways to respond. And we can take advantage of the attention being paid to this disaster to prepare our families, church, and community should a disaster hit close to home. If we do these things, share as we are able, and don’t go there until our presence is needed, we will truly be responding at our best.
Once the national media gets its first, happy story about how people are beginning their recovery, they will go home. This is when the work is just getting started. This is when you are most needed. This is when the Church has the greatest opportunity to be the hands, the feet, and the heart of Jesus, offering help, hope, and healing with our neighbors. May we faithfully aim to arrive when we are needed, to serve as we are able, and to be among the last to leave.
Josh Baird is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). As director of Disciples Volunteering, he facilitates opportunities to participate in long-term disaster recovery efforts and other service for volunteers from across North America.
Every purchase of Help and Hope: Disaster Preparedness and Response Tools for Congregations supports Week of Compassion and Church World Service. Ordering directly from Chalice Press doubles the support each organization receives.
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