Your favorite TV show is interrupted for a breaking news story. A massive tsunami has washed ashore in Hawaii, leaving a path of destruction and death in its wake. An 8.2-magnitude earthquake struck Turkey and hundreds of thousands are missing. Or maybe a powerful hurricane has plowed through the Caribbean or a southern U.S. state, leaving millions homeless.
As you sit on your couch, surrounded by the comforts of home, you try to wrap your head around the scale of the natural disaster and the suffering of strangers halfway around the world. You feel compelled to act. You want to help these people, but you don't just want to go online and donate to the Red Cross. You want to send them something they need, right now.
You grab an old moving box and start loading it with supplies people need during a disaster: flashlights, warm clothes, blankets, bottled water, canned food. You look online and find a church in Texas that sends shipments of donated goods to disaster areas. You throw in a few of your kids' old stuffed animals for good measure, wrap the box in duct tape and send it next-day air.
Little do you know that in your zeal to make a difference, you aren't really helping at all. In fact, you are contributing to what relief workers call the disaster after the disaster. Here are ten of the worst things to donate.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm that ravaged the South Florida coast in 1992, truckloads of used clothing began pouring into the recovery areas. When drivers were unable to locate organizations or warehouses willing to take the clothes, the trucks unloaded the goods on the side of the road. A combination of afternoon rainstorms and late summer heat transformed the piles of old clothes into rotting, foul-smelling heaps of trash [source: Holguín-Veras].
We know that clothing is a critical need for people who've lost everything, right? That's the logic behind the clothing drives that spring up in the wake of a natural disaster, sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles from the scene of destruction.
But boxes of used clothing can actually hinder, rather than help, the recovery effort. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) cautions that used clothing is "rarely a useful item" to collect and donate to disaster relief efforts. Boxes of mixed clothing need to be sorted by size and type, cleaned in some cases, repackaged and deployed to those who need it most. If relief agencies and local officials don't have the volunteer resources to wade through all of the donations, the clothing will quickly fill warehouses or end up in the landfill with the rest of the disaster debris.
A better idea is to sell the used clothes at a yard sale and donate the funds to a disaster relief agency like the American Red Cross or the Salvation Army. If you really just want to get rid of some old clothes, take them to a thrift store like Goodwill instead. They will be sold, and the money usually goes to helping the needy in your area.
Disaster strikes halfway around the world — a tsunami in Thailand, flooding in India, an earthquake in Haiti — and the prime-time news beams back images of displaced survivors wandering among the devastation in bare feet. Meanwhile, you and your wife have 20 pairs of shoes in the closet that you never wear. Why not donate your old cross-trainers and Birkenstock sandals to people who desperately need them?
But beware of the "everything is needed" myth. There are cultural differences regarding shoes and other footwear. In other words, those shoe-less flood victims might not need or want a pair of patent leather pumps.
In some cases, an organization will call for donations of a particular kind of footwear; flip-flops, for example, are lighter to ship and more useful in tropical climates. But in most cases, the best donation is cash. Relief organizations can use your money to buy bulk deliveries of sorted and sized shoes directly to the areas that need it most.
After a catastrophic natural disaster, we are bombarded with footage of families and children who have lost everything, often including a loved one, in the tragedy. We wish we could take the survivors into our homes and into our arms for a warm, comforting hug. But when the disaster area is across the country or around the world, we search for ways to express our care and consolation from a distance. A warm cozy blanket seems like the next best thing to a hug.
While it's true that blankets are often critical in recovery efforts, they are seldom in short supply. In Haiti, for example, World Vision stocks blankets, clothes, food and other supplies that meet the standards for humanitarian relief in preparation for hurricane season. When a powerful earthquake struck in 2010, the organization was able to use the supplies in place for that disaster.
After the disastrous 2011 earthquake in Japan, relief workers complained of "too many blankets" and "too many clothes" hampering the cleanup effort. And they're not alone. One estimate suggested that 60 percent of the donations to a disaster site are not needed [source: Holguín-Veras].
Again, if a relief organization asks for blankets, by all means follow the instructions for packing and shipping the blankets to the right destination. But in most cases, the money and resources will be more efficiently spent if the organization buys blankets directly from suppliers or receives bulk donations from corporations and larger businesses.
There are some very generous and effective charities that collect new and used stuffed animals to give to children of troops deploying to war, hospitalized kids and children who have survived natural or man-made disasters. The unfortunate side effect of their good work is that many people instinctively feel that a gift of a teddy bear is the best way to provide comfort and healing to a community torn apart by tragedy.
Witness the small community of Newtown, Conn., the site of the horrific 2012 school shooting that claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults. According to reports in the local newspaper, Newtown was flooded with tens of thousands of teddy bears. A 20,000-square-foot (1,858-square-meter) warehouse was rented to store the barrage of stuffed toys; two weeks after the shooting, it was almost full [source: Brown]. At a candlelight vigil soon after the tragedy, attendees were far outnumbered by teddy bears, thanks to a shipment of 7,000 from Arkansas [source: Kessler].
Matt Cole, one of the organizers of the vigil, encouraged people to give money instead to the United Way. "A teddy bear is wonderful, but a teddy bear can't pay for counseling," said Cole. "A teddy bear can't pay for a funeral."
There is really no reason for individuals to donate medicine or medical supplies to a disaster relief effort. And under no circumstances should you donate opened or unused medications from your personal supply, particularly prescription drugs. Not only is it a waste — they will need to be thrown away — but they could pose a danger to those handling the drugs.
Disaster relief agencies and first responder units are usually well-stocked with the provisions to manage a medical crisis. When there is a need, they will work directly with drug companies and medical suppliers get the right supplies to the right place.
A 1999 report from the World Health Organization issued guidelines for medical donations to disaster areas and war-torn regions. Among the common problems it saw were poorly labeled packaging, expired medications and drugs sent that had nothing to do with the medical problems on the ground. After a 1988 earthquake in Armenia, the country received 5,000 tons of drugs and medical supplies worth $55 million. It took a staff of 50 people six months just to catalog the donations, most of which were only labeled with brand names; less than half were useful for emergency medical needs.
It is difficult to overstate the love and devotion that Americans have for their pets, particularly dogs. When they read the statistics about stranded animals after disasters, they might ship 50-pound (23-kilogram) bags of dog food to the Gulf Coast or a hundred pairs of doggie shoes to New York City. (In the days after 9/11, a newscaster noted that some rescue dogs were suffering foot burns from hot rubble. The police force was inundated with boxes of dog shoes [source: Holguín-Veras].)
But shipping heavy boxes of supplies to a disaster area is not an efficient use of money and resources. Thankfully, there are wonderful organizations like the American Humane Association that make it their mission to rescue and protect animals that are stranded or injured during a natural disaster.
The American Humane Association is one of several sponsors of the Red Star Animal Emergency Services disaster response team. Red Star was created in 1916 to supply animal rescue services for the U.S. Army during World War I and is now the official animal welfare partner of the American Red Cross during a crisis. Today, the Red Star is a full-service disaster response team armed with an 82-foot (24.9-meter) mobile rescue rig and a fleet of vehicles and volunteers to conduct urban and flood search and rescue [source: American Humane Association].
If you want to help animals during a disaster, don't send heavy bags of pet food and litter. Donate to the American Humane Association or the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which will ensure that animals receive the food, shelter and medical care that they need.
The 2011 tornado that ripped through Joplin, Mo. took 161 lives and leveled homes and businesses across its 13-mile (21-kilometer) path of devastation [source: Adler and Bauer]. Average citizens across America responded with an outpouring of charity, shipping boxes of clothing, food, and odds and ends to the grieving survivors. But as the donations poured in, a new crisis was created — what to do with all of this stuff? As one Joplin relief worker put it, "We have been overwhelmed by disorganized generosity" [source: Holguín-Veras].
Imagine a large warehouse full of boxes of every shape, size and weight. Some of have been shrink-wrapped, labeled and loaded on pallets for easy transportation and storage, but others are entirely unlabeled and sealed with 47 strips of Scotch tape. Think of the volunteer man power and hours required to open and empty each of these boxes, identify the contents, sort the usable from the unusable, repack the good stuff, transport it to the right location and dispose of the junk.
FEMA strongly encourages people to refrain from shipping mixed boxes of relief supplies to disaster areas. The effort required to sort unsolicited donations is a strain on volunteer resources and a waste of funds (yours, the government's, and relief organizations'). If you coordinate with a relief agency to donate a specific item, make sure that your boxes are well-packed and sealed, and that the contents of the boxes are clearly labeled on the outside, saving the need to open them up.
Canned Food and Bottled Water
Who can forget the plight of thousands of displaced New Orleans citizens after Hurricane Katrina flooded large sections of the city in 2005? The stranded residents were temporarily housed in the city's convention center, which lacked adequate food and water [source: Haygood]. For three desperate days, the world watched as one of the wealthiest countries in the world failed to provide basic resources for those in greatest need.
The botched response to Katrina reinforces the myth that food and water are the best things to donate after a disaster. While it's true that disaster relief agencies and food banks always need nonperishable food and bottled water, individual collections of food shipped to disaster sites are not the best way to provide those critical resources.
Remember that every box of donations has to be opened, inspected and sorted. Food requires much closer inspection that other donations, because cans could be expired or damaged, at which point they become a health risk to the survivors. Then the food needs to be organized by type, repackaged and distributed to the people who need it the most.
As with other types of disaster relief, food is something best left to the professionals. They have the infrastructure and the resources to distribute hot meals directly to the hardest hit areas. And they work with food banks that can supply inexpensive bulk items — both nonperishable and fresh — through established networks of local suppliers at low cost or free [source: Fessler].
Consequently, the best way to supply food is to donate nonperishable items to local food banks so they are well-stocked for emergencies, and to donate money to disaster relief organizations. Here's another reason that cash is preferred, particularly for overseas disasters: Not only do relief organizations save money on shipping, they can often purchase the food close to the disaster zone, which helps to revive the local economy of the hard-hit nation.
Your Unsolicited Help
When we see images on TV of families with roofless houses or damaged walls, a check doesn't seem like enough. We want to drive down to the disaster area with a dozen buddies, sturdy boots and a box of tools, and get to work.
But that might not be the best course of action. In Joplin, Mo., thousands of volunteers descended on the town, brimming with good intentions, but clueless about the complicated work of disaster cleanup and recovery. In response, the neighboring Indiana Department of Homeland Security had to release the following message:
"Well-meaning individuals who simply show up to help without prior contact or coordination with disaster management personnel in Missouri can further complicate or even hinder response and recovery operations already underway."
Here are some other reasons not to just show up: Disaster areas are often low on food and lodging. Do you know where you would stay? Diseases like malaria and cholera spread quickly during these times, particularly in developing countries, and the last thing anyone needs is another ill person. Finally, consider the tasks at hand: Do you have special skills or training that would be useful in a disaster situation? If not, leave it to the professionals [source: Idealist].
If you want to donate your time and energy to disaster recovery -- a noble and necessary effort -- the best thing to do is affiliate with a national organization dedicated to disaster response. The Web site of the National Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster has a list of relief organizations that offer training in advance of disasters so they're ready to mobilize when the need arises. And you will be too.
Money to the Wrong People
We've stressed the importance of donating cash rather than goods in times of disasters. But, beware of people who set up phony charitable organizations to scam generous donors. The problem is so serious that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) established the National Center for Disaster Fraud to investigate and prosecute these cases.
Be careful about responding to e-mails that solicit donations on behalf of people claiming to be victims of a natural disaster. The e-mail may not only be a front for a scam operation, it could contain computer viruses or worms. Also, pay close attention to the name of the organization soliciting donations. Scammers often use subtle misspellings of recognized international organizations to fool unsuspecting donors [source: USDOJ].
Texting is a simple and fast way to contribute to a cause. But again, watch out for phony organizations that will run up texting charges on your phone. This is known in fraud circles as "cramming" [source: Oregon Department of Justice]. If you notice odd charges on your phone bill, notify your carrier immediately.
If you feel leery about donating cash because you don't recognize the name of the organization (or even if you do, you aren't sure of their track record), you can run a background check using sites like GuideStar and Charity Navigator. They'll tell you how long the charity has been in business, what percentage of donations go to administrative costs and other useful information.
HowStuffWorks profiles three charities that need knitted items, including the Snuggles Project, Knitted Knockers and Wildlife Victoria.
Author's Note: 10 Worst Things to Donate After a Disaster
The most important thing I learned writing this article is the danger of being half-right. We are absolutely right to assume that supplies like extra clothes, blankets and nonperishable food are critical following a natural disaster. But we are wrong to think that the best way to get those goods to the victims of a disaster is by donating them ourselves. In fact, by taking the great initiative to collect, pack and ship donations to a disaster area, we are making life much more difficult for the overwhelmed relief workers and volunteers on the ground.
- American Humane Society. "About Animal Emergency Services." (Jan. 29, 2013) http://www.americanhumane.org/animals/programs/emergency-services/about-animal-emergency-services.html
- American Red Cross. "Red Cross Issues Progress Report on Sandy Response and Recovery." Jan. 29, 2013. http://www.redcross.org/news/press-release/Red-Cross-Issues-Progress-Report-on-Sandy-Response-and-Recovery
- Brown, Kristin V. "Teddy bears and toys inundate Newtown." The News-Times. December 27, 2012. (Jan. 28, 2013) http://www.newstimes.com/local/article/Teddy-bears-and-toys-inundate-Newtown-4149992.php#ixzz2JNqLpHVJ
- City of Joplin. "Joplin, Missouri hit by EF-5 tornado on May 22, 2011." May 24, 2012. (Jan. 30, 2013) http://www.joplintornadoanniversary.com/resources/city-of-joplin-factsheet5-14-12.pdf
- Federal Emergency Management Agency. "When Disaster Strikes... How to Donate or Volunteer Successfully!" August 2007. (Jan. 28, 2013) http://www.fema.gov/pdf/donations/when_disaster_strikes.pdf
- Fessler, Pam. NPR. "Want to Help Sandy Victims? Send Cash, Not Clothes." November 16, 2012. (Jan. 30, 2013) http://www.npr.org/2012/11/16/165211607/want-to-help-sandy-victims-send-cash-not-clothes
- Haygood, Wil; Scott Thompson, Ann. "'It Was as if All of Us Were Already Pronounced Dead.'" The Washington Post. September 15, 2005. (Jan. 30, 2013) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/14/AR2005091402655.html
- Hayward, Allison. "Why Disaster Victims Don't Need Your Blankets Or Your Band-Aids." The Student Doctor Network. November 21, 2012. (Jan. 28, 2013) http://studentdoctor.net/2012/11/why-disaster-victims-dont-need-your-blankets-or-your-band-aids/
- Holguín-Veras, José. "The donations Sandy's victims don't need." Los Angeles Times. November 3, 2012 (Jan. 28, 2013) http://articles.latimes.com/2012/nov/03/opinion/la-oe-holguin-veras-hurricane-donations-20121104
- Indiana Department of Homeland Security. "Unsolicited Goods Hinder Recovery Effort in Missouri." June 2, 2011. (Jan. 30, 2013) http://www.in.gov/activecalendar/EventList.aspx?view=EventDetails&eventidn=33897&information_id=67933&type=&rss=rss
- Jacob, Binu et al. Public Health Reports. "Disaster Mythology and Fact: Hurricane Katrina and Social Attachment." September-October 2008. (Jan. 30, 2013) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2496928/
- Kessler, Brandie. New Haven Register. "Want to help Newtown? Donations, yes. Teddy bears, no." Jan. 1, 2013. (Jan. 28, 2013) http://www.westhartfordnews.com/articles/2013/01/01/news/doc50db35f63b795455663300.txt
- Los Angeles Time. "Woman swept to sea by rogue wave in Humboldt county." L.A. Now. Jan. 27, 2013. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2013/01/woman-swept-to-sea-by-rogue-wave-in-humboldt-4th-death-in-months-1.html
- Oregon Department of Justice. "Disaster Relief Scams." (Jan. 29, 2013) http://www.doj.state.or.us/consumer/Pages/disaster_relief.aspx
- U.S. Department of Justice. "Justice Department Officials Raise Awareness of Disaster Fraud Hotline." November 1, 2013. (Jan. 30, 2013) http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2012/November/12-crm-1308.html